The trouble with monuments

 

Last week, Western conservative congressmen found a great excuse to get all worked up, apoplectic, and downright angry in the gleeful way that Western conservatives seem to have a premium on. President Obama, they said, was ready to make a massive land grab that would turn huge swaths of Western states into federal fiefdoms, off-limits to gas drilling, off-road-vehicles, grazing, coal mining and all kinds of other God-given rights.


The kerfuffle was over an Interior Department secret list of places worthy of protection, either by national monument designation, other conservation designations, or by buying up private land that checkerboards federal holdings. Fourteen sites are on the national monument list, with another ten or so on the other lists, all spread out across the 11 Western states. The document emphasizes, in the short preamble: "The areas listed below may be good candidates for National Monument designation under the Antiquities Act; however, further evaluations should be completed prior to any final decision, including an assessment of public and Congressional support."

That tone, which is hardly "unilateral," as opponents claim, hasn't eased the backlash. The U.S. Chamber of Congress – notorious for its climate change denials -- sent a letter to Congress urging it to remand the president's authority to create any new national monuments. The Congressional Western Caucus – led by nouveau sagebrush warrior Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah – ran no fewer than eight articles on its Web site bashing the document and its alleged intent, with titles like "War on the West II." The reference was clear: The first "War on the West" being President Bill Clinton's executive order establishing Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah in 1996.

Most of the noise today is coming from Utah. That's hardly surprising; the Grand Staircase designation left a good portion of the state fuming, and many southern Utahns continue to harbor bad feelings. Two more big swaths of Utah – Cedar Mesa in the southeast, and San Rafael Swell in the south-central part of the state – are on the draft national monument list. The parcels in question are already federal land, and parts of Cedar Mesa already lie within the Grand Gulch primitive area and Natural Bridges National Monument. So to treat this as some sort of "grab" by the feds may seem strange; but then, southern Utahns do have a, er, different relationship to BLM land. Namely, a fair number of them think it's theirs, sometimes for the wrecking (most notably when it comes to riding OHVs roughshod over the landscape, or looting ancient cultural sites).

I must say, I can kind of understand where they're coming from. *


Ten years before Clinton designated Grand Staircase as a national monument, my dad and his friend Jim Whitfield – a rather eccentric, brilliant artist – took me on a backpacking trip. I was 16. We left my dad's house in Cortez, Colo., just before sunrise on Christmas morning. I rode in the back of the pickup with the dogs, as was customary back then for those under the drinking age. While I descended into a semi-hypothermic state, we drove across the Reservation, over the bridge at Glen Canyon Dam, along a dirt road and then another one. Finally, we arrived at a little wash, out in the middle of nowhere – we hadn’t seen another car on the road for miles – and started walking.

Our journey lasted until New Year's Eve, and consisted of all-day treks along the bottom of a narrow, sunless canyon. We had to cross the meandering, frozen stream repeatedly each day, climaxing with a waist-deep wade across a silty river, chunks of ice nuzzling my blue-jean-clad legs, to get to an arch on the other side. Nights were star-filled, and consisted for me of a form of torture that would make Dick Cheney proud; I lay awake and, through chattering teeth, cursed the cold, God and most of all my father for dragging me down there. On the last two days we were without food save a slimy gruel made from potato pancake mix out of a box, celery offal and half a jar of grape jam. This was the stuff my adolescence was made of.

We saw no one else, of course, during the whole trip, that being the point and all. (My dad and Whitfield preferred to have the desert to themselves, a tendency that could be taken to the extreme; on another cold night of my youth, I sat in horror as Whitfield drove circles around a tent housing a terrified city couple, blaring his horn and screaming because they had camped in his favorite spot). We didn't see another human being until we finally emerged from the canyon, and drove back into the little town nearby. We went into the only place in town that was open to get some stale chips and salsa, and got the stinkeye from some grizzled-looking locals who were hanging out, seemingly for no other reason than to give people like us dirty looks like that.

The whole journey was miserable, but beautiful too. On the last morning of the backpack, I was able to scramble out of the canyon on to the slickrock expanse above, and watch the sun rise over the eerie, wrinkled landscape of the Waterpocket Fold. And though it sounds cliché – I was only sixteen, after all – I imagined myself to be Everett Ruess, looking out at an empty and largely unexplored land that, somehow, was mine to discover.

The canyon was Coyote Gulch, the frozen river the Escalante. Both are contained in what is now Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. I didn't go back there for a long time (my preferred Utah haunt is the aforementioned Cedar Mesa and environs). And when Clinton waged his so-called war, I was, like most people of the liberal, environmentalist ilk, delighted. Finally, this past year, I went back to that area on a family camping trip.


The unpeopled place I remembered had vanished. We had to fight for spots in campgrounds. The trails were crowded. There were no more sketchy little stores selling expired Fritos; they were fully stocked with organic produce, tofu and Ed Abbey books, instead. Espresso is readily available, and there’s even a Buddhist restaurant, where the staff catches flies with a little non-harming vacuum cleaner. Instead of grumpy ranchers, there are now grumpy newcomers who, at the end of tourist season, are tired of trying to be nice to busloads of people who speak only French and smoke like chimneys at every stop.

Don't get me wrong. I like espresso and French folks and Buddhists as much as the next guy. And it was a relief to cross through the pinon-juniper forests without seeing any sign of ATVs racing through the landscape, annihilating the cryptobiotic soil. The streambeds, through which the water ran clear and cool, were not trampled by cows or filled with manure; sage flats were not overgrazed. Conspicuously absent were herds of the big white gasfield trucks that are ubiquitous in so many parts of the West these days.

Yet, I can't help but feel a sense of loss. Gone, thanks to the national monument designation, is the solitude. Gone is the sense of discovery I had on that lonely morning long ago. Gone is the illusion that one could wander into one of these canyons and simply vanish. In its place, despite the relatively primitive conveniences of this national monument, is the hint of commercialism that comes wherever tourism trumps every other way of making a living. And there are so many people now, intent on adoring the place so thoroughly that they wear it down like water on sandstone. They stream through relentlessly in cars and buses, their cameras clicking.

My attitude, I know, is selfish. And it's really not so different than that of the Utah county commissioners and state legislators and long-time locals who resent it when the feds come in and threaten to do the same with places like Cedar Mesa. For a long time, locals were pretty much free to do what they wished on that land, whether it was "owned" by the feds or not. And those canyons, mesas and sagebrush plains were largely ignored by the outside world. It wasn't so long ago, in fact, that the only road from Blanding to Cedar Mesa was a treacherous dirt path that traversed, rather than cut through, the vertical cliff face of Comb Ridge. No one but the locals even knew some of these places existed; and there weren't enough outsiders around to complain if the Allreds or the Shumways or any of the rest of Blanding's elite were collecting artifacts, or making jeep trails through the sage, or collecting firewood.

So, it's no wonder people get riled up when they hear rumors of another national monument designation. They’ve got a lot to lose. And I guess, in a way, so do I.

Or maybe not. On our recent trip to Grand Staircase, we did a big hike up to a canyon waterfall. We had a four year old with us, along with my daughters – 7 and 10 – and we figured we’d never make it all the way to the end of the hike, what with the scorching heat that day. But we did, and at the end was a trout filled pool, damsel- and dragon-flies dancing on its surface, a 100 foot waterfall spilling across the sandstone from above. My daughters both shed their clothes and ran in, the cold rippled through their bodies, and they screamed with delight. And it was then that I saw it in their eyes: That sense of discovery that I thought had been lost long ago.

 

*

List of areas that "may be good candidates for National Monument designation" from the Interior Department's internal list:

 

• San Rafael Swell, Utah

• Montana's Northern Prairie, MT

• Lesser Prairie Chicken Preserve, NM

• Berryessa Snow Moutains, CA

• Heart of the Great Basin, NV

• Otero Mesa, NM

• Northwest Sonoran Desert, AZ

• Owyhee Desert, OR/NV

• Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, CA (expansion)

• Vermillion Basin, CO

• Bodie Hills, CA

• The Modoc Plateau, CA

• Cedar Mesa region, UT

• San Juan Islands, WA

 

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