Plans are percolating to remake the management of southern Utah


Before he leaves office, President Barack Obama has the chance to significantly alter the landscape of Utah by using his ace in the hole, the Antiquities Act, which was signed into law in 1906 by my hero ¾ Republican President Theodore Roosevelt.

He could set aside thousands of acres in southern Utah as a new national monument managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The president has already employed the law to designate new national monuments in Virginia, Colorado and California, mainly because protective legislation has stalled in Congress. But will he do so in Utah? Like anything to do with public land in this state, a new monument is controversial.

Here are some of the caveats: National monument status will only increase tourism, and more tourists will only mar delicate landscapes. And some folks prefer plain-old vanilla BLM lands without any special designation, though that leaves a large window open for oil and gas drilling, potential mining and, inevitably, more roads.

For decades, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has sought a huge Redrock Wilderness Act to permanently protect 9.5 million acres of southern Utah as wilderness. But every year, this bold legislation has gone nowhere. A scaled-down version is the Greater Canyonlands National Monument, a proposal to set aside lands adjacent to Canyonlands National Park south and west of Moab. This sounds like a good idea ¾ especially with oil and gas wells already close to Island in the Sky and other spectacular landscapes. But it’s not the only proposal for these lands, and few locals have supported it.

The fight for landscape preservation in southeastern Utah mostly takes place in San Juan County, whose biggest towns are Blanding and Monticello. Over 92 percent of the county is federal, state or tribal land, and the little private land available was mostly settled by Mormon pioneer farmers. Only about 15,000 people live in this county that stretches across almost 8,000 square miles, and half are Native Americans who have their own ideas about managing public lands. 

One idea springing from the Navajo Nation, and gaining support from other tribes, is the proposed Bears Ears National Conservation Area near Bluff, Utah, which would include tribal and BLM co-management. The 1.9 million-acre area stretches from the San Juan River west to Lake Powell, including Comb Ridge and Grand Gulch, and it includes some of the most significant Ancestral Puebloan sites in the Southwest.

A third proposal comes from a group called Friends of Cedar Mesa, formed in 2012, which advocates a “regional discussion about protecting public lands in southeast Utah.” Its proposal correctly notes that even though there are Navajo and Ute claims to the redrock landscape, Hopis are the direct descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans, making the region indisputably a Hopi homeland.

Either a new national conservation area or a national monument in southern Utah would place the BLM lands into the National Landscape Conservation System. That designation protects the landscape, but at the same time it might limit public access. That is exactly what happened at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument near Cortez, Colorado. Its BLM management plan closed the bottom of East Rock Creek to public access and prohibited off-trail use in Sand Canyon.

The closures were made ostensibly to protect archaeological resources, yet that contradicted the original idea that Canyons of the Ancients would be an “open museum.” I know, because I have tried for years to get a permit to hike the floor of East Rock Creek, a place I once visited every fall and spring. Now, only archaeologists with federal permits can walk the canyon’s bottom and revel in its rich, tangible pre-history.

Exclusion is not what locals were promised 15 years ago when Canyons of the Ancients became a national monument. I fear the same thing could happen in southern Utah, and I worry that public access ¾ even on foot ¾ might be restricted.

“Areas should not be closed to the public. That’s the potential downside of monuments,” argues Lynell Schalk, a former BLM ranger.

Will President Obama proclaim a new national monument in southern Utah? And if he does, will the management plan provide for landscape and environmental protection, yet also guarantee public access? To make sure, I’d like to take the president hiking. I’d like to show President Obama Moon House on an autumn afternoon and the Citadel at sunset.

Change is coming to the redrock canyons of southern Utah. We can all feel it. Let’s hope a century from now, Americans will say that we saved the past for the future, yet kept alive a sense of personal discovery so that quiet users might walk through canyons as the Anasazi once did.

Andy Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College and can be reached at [email protected]

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds