By Michael Lanza
As my friend David and I set out from the Peavine Canyon Trailhead on a 40-mile, mid-May backpacking trip through southeastern Utah’s Dark Canyon Wilderness—part of the Bears Ears National Monument now in the gunsights of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who’s proposing that President Donald Trump radically shrink this and other national monuments, something no president has ever done—a young cowboy rode up on a horse. He launched into a conversation that lasted just a few minutes, but spoke volumes about the broad chasm dividing the values and motives of people like Zinke, Trump, and others who want to diminish these lands from those of us who use and cherish them.
Dressed in a cowboy hat, neckerchief, a faded wool vest over a thick wool shirt, and leather chaps, he was clearly happy to see people. He’d been riding the high country of the Manti-La Sal National Forest for several days mending cattle fences, and got caught in a snowstorm that blasted the mountains and canyon rims with high winds and a few inches of fresh snow. “I came out here only with summer clothes and I was freezing,” he says with a laugh. He was as happy as we were to see the sun shining on that cool morning.
He told us he’d been living for the past three years in a cowboy camp just several miles southwest of there, in one of the most unpopulated corners of America. There’s absolutely nothing glamorous or comfortable about living year-round in a cowboy camp, but he loved it. Maybe that’s partly because he’s an unattached guy in his twenties leading exactly the life he wants, but he explained it simply: “There aren’t many people around, and I like it that way.”
After some friendly conversation, he wished us a good hike and rode off. It was a brief encounter between people from very different backgrounds, our paths overlapping because we shared an affinity for the harshly beautiful canyon country of southeastern Utah. Just as that cowboy hadn’t seen many people as the snow fell over the previous week, David and I would encounter just a handful of other backpackers over the next few days in Dark Canyon. In country that lonely, when you run into other people, you stop and talk, just like you wave when another vehicle passes by on the remote dirt roads.
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Unfortunately, the appreciation that cowboy shares with David and me for places like Bears Ears apparently does not extend to the people currently in charge of those lands.
Interior Secretary Zinke recently submitted a report to President Trump that recommends shrinking at least four national monuments, including Bears Ears and another in southern Utah, the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and reducing protections in up to 10 others, according to a Washington Post story based on a leaked copy of the report. The Post story also reported that Zinke recommends Trump allow “traditional uses” now restricted within the monuments on his list, such as grazing, logging, coal mining, and commercial fishing. While Zinke’s report hasn’t been released publicly by the White House, the New York Times reported that Zinke was considering reducing Bears Ears from its current 1.35 million acres to 160,000 acres—a scale of reduction no president has ever executed.
I’ve seen enough of Bears Ears and Escalante to feel despair and anger over the idea of losing protection for any parts of them or other monuments—especially because the arguments for removing protections are built on misinformation and lies, and doing so contradicts the desires of huge majorities of Americans who own these lands and want to keep them as they are.
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Teddy Roosevelt and the Antiquities Act
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Antiquities Act, which gave presidents the authority to designate national monuments to preserve “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” Since then, 16 presidents, Democrats and Republicans, have designated 157 national monuments. Parks like Arches, Zion, Grand Canyon, and Olympic began as national monuments (the latter two declared by T.R., Zion by President William Taft, and Arches by President Herbert Hoover).
Zinke likes to describe himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican.” As Interior Secretary, Zinke oversees several agencies, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Zinke’s purview extends over 500 million acres, or about one-fifth of America’s land area. If he wants to mold himself in the shape of T.R.—who as president protected about 230 million acres of public land in four national game preserves, five national parks, 18 national monuments, 51 federal bird reserves, and 150 national forests—he could try to follow in the footsteps of notable conservation giants among past Interior secretaries.
Some examples of role models for Zinke would include Stewart Udall, who, under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, played a key role in the addition of four national parks, six national monuments, eight national seashores and lakeshores, nine national recreation areas, twenty national historic sites, and fifty-six national wildlife refuges to America’s roster of public lands. Those sites included such beloved and magnificent parks as Canyonlands, North Cascades, and Redwood, and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Udall’s legacy also includes helping pass the Clear Air Act, the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Zinke might also look to the historic example of Cecil Andrus, who in 1980 persuaded President Jimmy Carter to protect more than 100 million acres in Alaska, including the creation of several new national parks.
In reality, no one who can read would mistake Zinke for a Roosevelt, Udall or Andrus—all of whom, we can safely assume, would be outraged over any effort to shrink or degrade protections for any public lands. Zinke follows in a long tradition of snake-oil salesmen who traffic in false promises to the exclusive benefit of themselves and their patrons—in his case, the oil and gas, mining, timber, and other extractive industries. The League of Conservation Voters judged that just four percent Zinke’s votes during his single term in Congress qualified as pro-environment. “While he continues to paint himself as a modern Teddy Roosevelt, his very short voting record shows him repeatedly siding with industry,” the Sierra Club’s Matthew Kirby, who works on western public lands issues, told Scientific American.
The battle over national monuments is not about the people who live and work near them or who use these lands; and it’s not about creating jobs, as proponents misleadingly claim. This is about certain industries struggling to retain their long-held power and influence in the best way they know how: by purchasing the loyalty of politicians through their political donations. These are the same industries that have, for centuries, poisoned the waters, fouled the air, stripped the forests, flattened the mountaintops, bulldozed the landscape, and trampled sites of archeological, religious, and historical significance in innumerable places. National monuments are created to protect places from such destruction.
Politicians like Zinke don’t talk about the fact that the U.S. outdoor industry is an economic leviathan that generates $887 billion in consumer spending and over $120 million in federal and state tax revenue annually, and supports 7.6 million jobs. Public lands are the backbone of that industry.
The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has generated, so far, $310 million in revenue for public schools and services and contributed to a 32 percent jump in local incomes, according to a study by Headwaters Economics.
They also prefer to ignore polls that consistently find that Americans from all walks and political persuasions favor maintaining protections for national monuments by enormous margins: Colorado College’s 2017 Conservation in the West poll found that 80 percent of voters in seven Western states support keeping existing national monuments protections in place, while just 13 percent of them favor removing existing protections. Business owners in towns bordering national monuments will tell you their businesses have grown since those monuments were created. Go to any rally for public lands—as I did in Boise, where I live, earlier this year—and you’ll see hikers in fleece standing shoulder to shoulder with hunters in camou.
Trump, of course, is a charlatan and demagogue and many other things you’d never want your child to become, who thrives on dividing people, and who faces the monumental challenge of sustaining the thinnest of electoral coalitions in a nation where a majority of voters considers him a loathsome human being. Most Americans are not like him—which makes it difficult to comprehend what motivates him.
But we need only understand that someone lacking any kind of moral compass—save the broken one that always points at him—will suffer no self-doubt, struggles of conscience, or remorse over taking any action that furthers his vainglorious ambition. If shrinking or degrading national monuments shores up his political base or earns him the support of those industries, we should expect Trump to force such unwelcome outcomes on Americans just as eagerly as he forced unwelcome advances on countless women. To a person like that, his self-absorbed definition of victory justifies whatever means are necessary to achieve it.
Dark Canyon Wilderness
Late on our second afternoon in Dark Canyon, near the bottom of Peavine Canyon, David and I ran into the U.S. Forest Service’s manager of the Dark Canyon Wilderness, working with a volunteer and a mule team. That manager told us he has been working there for 11 years, and public interest in the area has grown in the months since the declaration of the Bears Ears Monument.
He also told us he couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. As a wide smile creased a face lined by years of working under a high-elevation sun, he said, “This place is really unique, for the blend of conifer forest and canyons. And we keep finding ancient ruins and archeological sites that aren’t even catalogued yet.”
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When Zinke says he’s acting on behalf of local people—and Trump may ultimately parrot that same dishonest talking point—he’s simply not telling the truth. If he really wants to hear what people think, I can point him in the direction of a cowboy, a wilderness manager, and a lot of backpackers and other people who get outside frequently, who would tell him to keep Bears Ears, Escalante, and the other national monuments on his hit list just as they are.
Watch for my upcoming feature story about that 40-mile backpacking trip in the Dark Canyon Wilderness, and see my all of my stories at The Big Outside about the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and hiking and backpacking in southern Utah.
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