What happened to shielding iconic landscapes from greed and destruction?

What happened to shielding iconic landscapes from greed and destruction?
© Courtesy of Stephen Trimble / www.stephentrimble.net

When John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt urged us to shield our iconic landscapes from the forces of greed and destruction, we listened. Muir in Yosemite, lamenting the “hoofed locusts” that devastated the Sierra Nevada when white settlers turned loose their millions of sheep to graze fragile mountain meadows. Roosevelt standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, asking us to “leave it as it is” and end miners’ efforts to privatize the great abyss with speculative claims from river to rim.

It’s time to listen again to a century of prescient conservationists and protect another American icon, Utah’s Escalante River.

Winding south to the Colorado River in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the Escalante was the last major river in the lower forty-eight to be mapped and named by non-Native explorers. It's a precious permanent stream in arid country, an Edenic landscape of waterfalls and springs in a maze of sinuous sandstone canyons. The river’s remoteness has been the Escalante’s bane and gift — sparing archaeological and paleontological wonders. Far too few know this place. 

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Preservation efforts reach back to FDR’s Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who proposed an enormous Escalante National Park surrounding the river in the 1930s. The big preserve didn’t happen. But the river and its slickrock cathedrals finally became the centerpiece of a cherished conservation achievement when President Clinton proclaimed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996.

As the Trump administration escalates attacks on America’s public lands, the Department of the Interior seems to have a particular hunger for destroying Utah’s irreplaceable redrock canyons and a tragic obsession with undermining the integrity of the Escalante.

Trump began with the evisceration of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by half in 2017. And now, the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed resource management plan released on August 23rd seeks to codify and accelerate this retreat from responsible safeguarding of monument assets. The BLM’s Grand Staircase planners offered a draft for citizen review but then recommended an alternative written after the public comment period closed, catering even more absolutely to extractive industry, damaging off-road vehicles, and the whims of a tiny number of elected officials.

As Mary O’Brien of the Grand Canyon Trust says, “it’s as if the BLM tried to promote every damaging activity they could imagine — more roads, more cattle grazing, more fuel extraction, more non-native grass seeding, more OHV use in wilderness study areas.”

This aggressive plan for Grand Staircase follows the similar industry-weighted plan for Bears Ears National Monument announced a month earlier. Strong legal challenges to the president’s slashing of these monuments are moving through federal court in the D.C. circuit. Meanwhile, Interior officials have forged ahead, giving mining interests and local county commissioners whatever they want in these proposed plans while ignoring pleas for restraint from Native people, scientists, conservationists, and public lands advocates.

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Perhaps most egregious — and puzzling — is the agency proposal to open the monument’s Escalante River corridor to cattle grazing.

For a generation, we’ve taken stands on behalf of the Escalante River. In 1999, when one rancher grew tired of the difficult and marginal struggle to run his cows along the river, he sold his grazing permit to the Grand Canyon Trust, initiating the complete retirement of grazing on the Escalante mainstem within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Bureau of Land Management found alternative country for the rancher’s herd. Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt signed off on the deal. 

Beyond the river, more than 96 percent of the monument has remained open to grazing since the 1996 Clinton proclamation. Just 200 people earn income from grazing within these boundaries, and in most years, their operations are money-losing propositions. Agriculture and ranching contribute only 6 percent to the local economy while travel and tourism generate 44 percent of the county’s private employment. Longtime Executive Director of the Grand Canyon Trust Bill Hedden says that reopening the Escalante Canyon to grazing “would have the net economic effect of letting a few additional hobby ranchers lose their shirts.”

Over the past decade, the Walton Family Foundation has contributed $4 million of a $10 million investment in removing invasive Russian olive trees armoring 90 miles of the Escalante’s riverbanks. Hundreds of Youth Conservation Corps members have worked on this project, under the auspices of the Escalante River Watershed Partnership and Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners. This is the largest-ever riparian restoration effort on America’s public lands. And it worked.

Today, beaver and river otters have returned in numbers. Fisheries have improved. The river runs bright through the canyons, unfouled by trampling livestock. Nearly 1 million visitors come to Grand Staircase-Escalante annually, reveling in wildness, solitude, silence, dark skies and restored biodiversity.  

If Utah’s elected officials listen to science, if they heed the wishes of the millions of citizens who have repeatedly submitted comments to the Interior Department pleading for protection of the monument, if they admit to precipitous regional climate change that will bring unprecedented drought, if they want to protect the investment of that $10 million in restoration, they will insist that the Escalante River remain free of livestock. 

The familiar Western delusion of extractive industry leading to unlimited growth and riches is a “pathetically Western” pipe-dream, as Utah’s great writer of the 20th century, Wallace Stegner, warned us. Raising cattle is no more the future of the rural Western economy than is mining or oil leasing or logging.  Introducing cows to the riparian oasis of the Escalante is no way to treat an icon.

The BLM will accept protests through Sept. 23. American citizens together own these public lands. Our numbers are as vast as the landscape of the Escalante itself. We can make a difference. Submit your statement to the BLM and urge your members of congress to oppose needless damage to this legacy landscape. 

Stephen Trimble serves on the board of Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners. His latest book is “The Capitol Reef Reader.”