On the very last morning of our six weeks on the road, there was a tepid quietness at our camp site as we sat in the backs of our two vehicles knowing that in just a few hours, we would be headed home. While there may have not been much left to say to one another, we both knew there was much to settle up on and tackle in the coming weeks as we started to write about and reveal what we experienced during this public lands road trip, aka the Southwest Road Trip. I remember saying to Elisabeth at the time, “my blog is going to take a few weeks.”
I can hardly in writing describe or recreate what this trip was like and how it has transformed me. But, this trip wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about going to beautiful places for our social media pages. This trip was about our public lands and the untangling of the discourse that they are currently in and what the future holds for them. Last year a review of our National Monuments was ordered by president Trump. The review included 27 of our Monuments, all of which received Monument designation from 1996 and on. They notably include both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah.
So, what is a National Monument?
-A National Monument is protected land created from land that is owned or controlled by the federal government.
-These lands are already public lands that are more often BLM land, National Forest land and/or National Park Service land.
-National Monuments are created by a sitting President or congress through the power of the Antiquities Act of 1906. Presidents and congress have also used the Antiquities Act to enlarge already existing national monuments.
-The Antiquities Act was originally and first used to protect mostly prehistoric Native American ruins and artifacts on federal lands in the American West. This was put into law by President Theodore Roosevelt.
-National Monuments often contain historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.
-The designation of National Monuments and the Antiquities Act was first largely challenged and brought to the Supreme Court in 1920. It was in response to Roosevelt's declaration of the Grand Canyon as a monument. The court ruled unanimously that the Grand Canyon was "an object of historic or scientific interest" and could be protected by National Monument designation, which set a precedent for the use of the Antiquities Act. Since then every challenge presented in court regarding the use of Antiquities Act has been rejected.
As of late, there has been much debate on two of the larger monuments which landed on the review list: The Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments. Why?
In 1996, President Clinton designated Grand Staircase Escalante as a National Monument. It includes 1.7 million acres.
In 2006, President Obama designated Bears Ears as a National Monument. It includes 1.35 million acres.
It has been debated that each of these Monuments were made too large and are not in the best interest of the land, the people who use them or the people who live within or around the Monument boundaries.
I am going to skip from the facts, which I felt were necessary to include, and onto my experience and opinion regarding each of these places and how I came to find myself within this debate.
I want to first say that I have no agenda or interest in making everyone who reads this agree with me or pick a “side” to be on. I will first have you know that I am actually (still) a registered republican. I did not vote for Trump. But, I was raised and have always believed that the issues that plague our country are best solved with limited government. This administration, the public lands issue and other issues have certainly begun to change my mind with how I feel about political affiliation. For the past year, I have debated on whether or not I would ever reveal this about myself, but I think it is important because it proves that research, knowledge and personal experience can help you to change your mind and evolve as a person. It has certainly been a place of both struggle and liberation for me over the past year.
When the Monument review happened last year, I felt confused. I felt betrayed. I also felt, quite suddenly, impassioned. I have never been an outspoken person. Sure, I have my opinions, but I like to keep them to myself. I have also never been or ever wanted to be an activist. I still don’t consider myself one. There are so many other more educated people who are further invested in this issue than me, and I am just one person who cares about these places because I go to them. I use them. They are our public lands, and they belong to you, to me, to us, and they deserve our care and our protection, and frankly I believe that right now, they deserve better.
Over the past year it has been hard to figure out what is exactly going on with these places that ended up on the review list. There has been so much misguided information and it has been both confusing and frustrating in trying to figure out what the facts are. So, last fall Elisabeth and I drew a map of how we could go on the road, visit these places and show our experience, all the while becoming more knowledgable in the process. What we came up with was a six week road trip that would take us to twelve different public lands, including 10 National Monuments. We got Merrell to support this venture, because they too stand on the side of public lands.
We started in a place that means a lot to me, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. It was my third visit inside of a year. It is also officially one of the contested monuments with newly proposed boundaries. These boundaries would shrink the monument from 1.7 million acres to just over 1 million acres and remove monument protection for key areas like the Dry Fork slot canyons and make other areas susceptible to future mining.
The mining issue is a complex one and a long divided argument that just last week became more apparent as a Canadian mining company by the name of Glacier Lake Resources issued a statement about the 200 acres of land that they have leased which is within the boundaries of the monument. Some people jumped the gun and said they were “actively mining” in Grand Staircase Escalante. This is not true. On March 29th, Glacier Lake staked 10 claims within the monument, each of them just over 20 acres.
In a statement accompanying Glacier Lake Resources’ release, the project was to referred to as “a welcome addition to the company’s every growing portfolio.”
“Surface exploration work will start this summer on the Colt Mesa property and drill permitting will be initiated shortly.”
The BLM (who currently holds the land) has said that it has not yet been contacted by Glacier Lake Resources about its plans as put forth in their statement.
“The BLM has not received a mining plan of operations from any entity regarding these mining claims or for the Colt Mesa copper mine to date, and the field office has not received a notice from any entity regarding commencement of exploration,” Kimberly Finch, a spokeswoman said via email. “We will process any plans of operation and notices under the current laws and regulations.”
This news may have been surprising to some people, but not me. While we were visiting Grand Staircase we obtained a map that drew out all of the planning units that reflect what could happen to the monument. Much of this drawing and the new boundaries of who is going to manage what have a lot to do with where there could be mining, like the Kaiparowits Plateau. There are two planning units that outline these areas that are currently within the monument. So, what is the Kaiparowits Plateau and why is it significant?
The Kaiparowits Plateau is a large, elevated sedimentary rock formation that runs parallel to Hole In The Rock rd, which is where much of the most popular and treasured landscapes are within the Monument. The Kaiparowits Plateau is 1,600 square miles in size and it is reported to contain an estimated 5 to 7 billion tons of recoverable coal. While no claims have been staked there, the drawing of these maps do make this area susceptible to future mining. I knew as soon as I saw these outlines that these new boundaries were not about better land management, but were about something more and that is the issue of mining.
I could be wrong. And, I want to make that very clear. I am not an expert on public lands or on mining. But, this is where this trip led me and this is what my research has produced. I also feel that I have been and will continue to be very fair in exercising what is fact vs what is my own opinion and experience.
It is my opinion that, as said above that these new boundaries for both Grand Staircase and Bears Ears largely have to do with what can be sold and mined and having been to these places and learned what land is for sale as well as what’s been sold already will be detrimental to our public lands and the significant archaeological sites that date back as old as 11,000 B.C. These sites are among the most culturally significant places within our country and it is my opinion that they deserve protection.
While we were in Bears Ears, we got to walk some of these sites with Len Necefer of Natives Outdoors. Len is of Navajo descent and a member of the Navajo Nation. Walking these places with him or with any Native, as we also did in Canyon De Chelly, will surely make you appreciate and understand why these places are significant, why they are important and why they deserve all of the protections that we can give them.
Currently, there are five lawsuits that challenge the president’s authority to change the boundaries of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase. Those lawsuits, which are still pending, were filed by five tribal nations as well as other environmental groups. On January 31st, the lawsuits were consolidated by Federal Judge Tanya S. Chutkan but have still yet to be heard or ruled upon. I have been told by numerous different parties, that these suits could be tied up in court for two years and as long as five years if they should be handed up to the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, there are a few different ways that you can stay informed and also get involved. Wilderness Society, who is actually one of the lawsuits filed, proves to be accurate and up to date when it comes to what is happening with our National Monuments as well as other wilderness and environmental issues, you can visit their website HERE and also donate HERE (this blog/article is not sponsored by endorsed or by Wilderness Society). See how you can advocate for our public lands on the advocacy page at outdoorindustry.org/advocacy, there you will find both national and local issues. VOTE. This November are our mid term elections where we elect who represents us in the senate and the house. Call or write your current representatives. There is a link HERE with who they are and how to contact them.
This will not be the only article and blog I write about the this trip. As mentioned in my introduction, I had planned on coming home and spending a few weeks writing something that was far better prepared and researched. I want to thank those of you who have come here and read this in its entirety, as it would obviously not fit in just one caption on Instagram. I hope you come away from this feeling a little better informed, empowered and also understanding of why and where this journey has taken me along the way. There will be lots more to come on this issue here, and also at merrell.com
photos by Elisabeth Brentano @elisabethontheroad