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Know the West

Towards a greater Canyonlands


This week the U.S. Senate is wading through nearly 100 budget amendments tacked onto the federal spending bill. This continuing resolution—which would prevent a government shutdown and fund federal agencies through the rest of the year—includes some unrelated, politically-charged measures which, while ultimately non-binding, give an interesting peek into political agendas.

According to aides, GOP lawmakers are expected to push for votes on amendments related to ending green energy tax credits, hindering an Environmental Protection Agency rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, green-lighting the Keystone XL pipeline, and facilitating drilling on public lands.

Couple this knowledge with efforts to subvert federal control of public lands in a handful of Western states, and one campaign to elevate protection of some of those areas is looking like a particularly hard sell. Given the current fervor in Utah to assert state control, the push to establish the Greater Canyonlands National Monument (GCNM) could lead to all-out political warfare.

Labyrinth Canyon. Courtesy of the BLM.

The 1.4 million acres being proposed for protection as the GCNM would comprise the largest roadless area in the lower 48 and are prime red-rock country currently administered by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The two existing units of Canyonlands National Park (including Horseshoe Canyon) would be the centerpiece and a GCNM as proposed would encompass Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Manti-La Sal National Forest and Natural Bridges National Monument. It was within these mazes where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid sought shelter, Thelma and Louise launched their car and themselves into oblivion, and Aron Ralston spent 127 horrific hours.

The terrain ranges from desert shrubland and rich grasslands to alpine forests and 10,000-foot peaks. It would be a hub of biodiversity where black bears, mountain lions, desert bighorn sheep and nearly 1,000 species of plants live, including seven endangered or threatened species. There, the Green, Dirty Devil and San Rafael rivers wend southward toward the Colorado, and hundreds of perennial springs sate a parched landscape.

Map of proposed Greater Canyonlands National Monument. Courtesy of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

This expansion (or “completion” of the Canyonlands park as it was originally envisioned) would put the kibosh on conventional oil and gas drilling, and on some lesser-known extractive interests that have been sniffing around the area. Those include uranium mining, potash mining and tar sands development—uses which fragment habitats and adversely affect air and water quality. (Proponents of the GCNM also blame off-road vehicles that run amok in the area for eroding soil, polluting water, displacing wildlife and trashing archeological sites. While national monument status would not prevent this use, it would presumably mean more careful management.)

In deciding whether or not this area should be protected, and by what means, two questions should be addressed: what would protection of this large area would mean for Utah and for the nation? And is the Antiquities Act of 1906 the right conservation tool?

Given the overt hostility of Utah’s politicians toward federal land protection it’s highly unlikely any of the BLM or USFS lands which may be included in a GCNM would be elevated to national park status (which requires an Act of Congress). In contrast, establishing a national monument requires no citizen or congressional input, only the president’s will and signature. There are only two major requirements for an area to qualify for national monument status: the land must be already be owned by the federal government, and it must contain “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.”

This latter burden is fulfilled by the abundant cultural resources in the area including tens of thousands of archaeological sites—granaries, hunting camps, cliff dwellings, petroglyphs and pictographs—dating back 12,000 years.

Horseshoe Canyon pictographs. Courtesy of Heather Hansen.

There are traces of Ice Age hunters and of ancient farmers who cultivated corn. There are secrets, as yet uncovered, to the rise and fall of Ancestral Puebloans and the bands that merged with them. There are also clues to their adaptation in the face of a changing climate, in a water-starved West. These are resources we’d be wise to recognize, and ideally to learn from, before plowing under.

Ignoring for a moment that 91 percent of this area is already federal land (the other 9 percent is held in a state trust), two-thirds of which is currently managed for mixed uses intended to benefit all Americans through leases and royalties, let’s consider how Utahns (regular citizens, not lawmakers) feel about conserving instead of exploiting these natural resources.

The clearest picture of this comes from the recent Western States Survey—a bi-partisan poll of citizens of different ages, incomes, interests and political persuasions. Sixty-two percent of those asked said “too much public land” is not a problem in Utah, while 68 percent feel loss of habitat for fish and wildlife is a “serious problem” in the state. Fifty-three percent think the impact of oil and gas drilling on “our land, air and water” is a serious problem. Ninety-six percent agree that national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas are an essential part of Utah’s economy; 77 percent believe those resources help to attract high quality employers and good jobs to their state; and 74 percent believe those areas enhance their own quality of life.

Canyonlands National Park. Courtesy of Heather Hansen.

Despite what their elected officials and extractive industry lobbyists keep (loudly) insisting about developing public lands within the state, that is not what the people of Utah appear to want. If those legislators were truly representing their constituents, they would protect the heart of their state—the history harbored in the serpentine labyrinths and the sandstone hoodoos sculpted by the wind. They would support President Obama’s use of his authority to make Canyonlands greater.

Heather Hansen is a journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at CU Law School, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.