As Fight Flares Over Public Lands, Summoning Power of Past Bond

February 21, 2017

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SEJ President’s Report: As a Fight Flares Over Public Lands, Summoning the Power of a Past Bond

By SEJ President Bobby Magill

My first job after graduating from college did not involve a reporter’s notebook and open records requests.

Instead, for five weeks in the summer of 2001, I worked as a wilderness guide for a private high-adventure summer camp based in southwest Colorado. My job was to co-lead a group of teens on treks deep into some of the Southwest’s most remote mountains and desert, teaching them how to sustainably backpack through some of the West’s most rugged landscapes.

My group’s first week in the wild began in a snowstorm at 9,000 feet in the middle of June on a remote ridge in eastern Utah in an area known today as the Bear’s Ears. The camp’s director dropped us off at a trailhead leading into Dark Canyon — one of southern Utah’s deepest, most complex and remote tributaries of the Colorado River. 

Riding into Dark Canyon, Utah. Photo: Richard M. Schreyer, S.J. & Jessie Quinney Library, Flickr Creative Commons

For the next eight days, six teens, my co-leader and I hiked more than 30 miles and descended more than a vertical mile through piñon-juniper woodlands and eventually through the sandstone and shale goosenecks forming Dark Canyon’s floor.

At one point, we were forced to inch our way above a raging creek, clinging to a slick rock face that formed a narrow hourglass-shaped slot, the roiling waters lapping at our heels as we searched for a path to the talus slope high above.

In case of an emergency, the camp director had given us an old “brick” cell phone enclosed in a PVC pipe. He might as well have asked us to phone 911 using smoke signals because a cell phone in Dark Canyon — roughly 60 miles by road from the trailhead to the nearest town — is as useful for calling for help as screaming for a pizza delivery in the Sahara. There’s a good chance your calls will be heard only by the ravens and ringtails, even as your voice echoes off the thousand-foot canyon walls.

The intensity of navigating Dark Canyon’s boulder fields and dry stretches of canyon floor that bake you in the heat radiating from the crimson sandstone can make it easy to forget that there’s a world beyond the stark desert spread before you.

In the silence punctuated only occasionally by the swoosh of an insect-hungry white-throated swift, it’s easy to believe that you, your companions, the birds and the scorpion you evicted from your shoe in the middle of the night are the only living beings on Earth.

On public lands, places of unique beauty

I’ve returned to Dark Canyon only once since that summer, but I’ve explored many other parts of that region: Natural Bridges, Grand Gulch, Comb Ridge, Cedar Mesa, the Moki Dugway — all places whose names evoke mystery, a deep and enduring history and a unique beauty that often defies the imagination. Each of those places exists on land owned by the public and managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service.

If you’ve explored any of those places, to say that they’re special may seem as self-evident as saying Yosemite Valley and Old Faithful are special. To think that they’re intrinsically valuable in their relatively undeveloped and natural state might seem as reasonable and earnest as suggesting that the Grand Canyon is most valuable if left undammed, un-mined and uncompromised by further development.  

Last December, then-President Barack Obama agreed, and he used the 1906 Antiquities Act to declare 1.3 million acres around the Bear’s Ears, including Dark Canyon, as a national monument — an area of wild public real estate just a touch larger than the state of Delaware.

The overall importance of America’s public lands

as an environmental matter isn’t trivial at all.  

Federal lands are ubiquitous throughout the West,

and they touch nearly everyone who lives there in some way.

Of course, the value of southern Utah’s public lands protected as a national monument or even under the stewardship of the federal government isn’t self-evident at all. Many Utahns see that land as a vast natural resource best controlled locally and used for fossil fuel extraction, ranchland and other development.

Others who want to see the land protected doubt that national monument status is the best way to accomplish that.

Federal acreage a political battleground

Let’s be honest: The importance of my experience wandering through wilds of Utah truly is a bit trivial as an environmental issue when compared to, say, how the U.S. EPA responds to lead in the drinking water in Flint, Mich.

Or, the Trump administration’s willful denial of established climate science means that our youngest children stand to see our coastal cities submerged beneath the rising Atlantic well within their lifetimes. Unless, of course, the federal government takes climate change a tenth as seriously as it does reviving the coal industry.

But the overall importance of America’s public lands as an environmental matter isn’t trivial at all.  Federal lands are ubiquitous throughout the West, and they touch nearly everyone who lives there in some way.

If you live in San Francisco or Santa Fe, N.M., your city’s water comes from public lands. If you live in Tucson, Ariz., you’re surrounded by national park and forest land. If you live in Denver, your economy is driven partly by the nearby ski resorts, national parks and wilderness trails, nearly all of which are on federal public lands. If you live in Wyoming, much of the oil, gas and coal produced there comes from public lands. And if you live in Seattle, the temperate rainforests you can see across the Puget Sound act as part of a giant carbon sink that absorbs human carbon emissions causing climate change.

SEJ President Bobby Magill
SEJ President Bobby Magill

Though public land in the region has been a political battleground for decades, it was presidential monument designations using the Antiquities Act that have proven to be some of the region’s biggest recent flashpoints of controversy around public lands, beginning with President Clinton’s 1996 declaration of the 1.8 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument just to the west of Bear’s Ears.

National monument declarations have helped mobilize Westerners skeptical of federal regulation and land ownership to demand more local control over federal public lands and even the transfer of that land to states willing to take it. Today, members of Congress, most notably Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, are plotting to undo Utah’s national monuments and the powers of the president to declare them without the consent of Congress.

At the same time, President Donald Trump wants to see public lands fully opened to oil, gas and coal development. Though Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, after public protests, withdrew his bill to sell off 3.3 million acres of public lands, his effort is unlikely to be the last that will aim to cut some of the 640 million acres of public land held by the federal government.

It once seemed unthinkable that anti-public lands movements would fully succeed. But the political climate today is more ripe for its success than at nearly any other time in the last century. It’s not a foregone conclusion that when the dust settles from the upheaval set forth by an emboldened Congress and the Trump administration that the West’s public lands will remain in the public domain, though most of it likely will.

Shedding light on changes ahead

Many other changes are ahead, and as I write this, it’s entirely unclear how deeply Congress’ deregulatory efforts will cut.

It’s widely expected that the upheaval and expected budget cuts in store for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could easily affect millions of people, especially as the agency girds for changes under its new administrator, Scott Pruitt, who has taken pride in his hostility toward the agency.

A weakened EPA could affect all of us. From my perch overlooking Manhattan, I breathe air regulated under the Clean Air Act. Coursing beneath my window is the Hudson River, a 200- mile-long Superfund site, which is still recovering from decades of PCB discharges. My apartment building’s (hopefully) lead-free tap water is regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Whether the coming regulatory changes involve the public lands we explore, the air we breathe, the rivers we fish in or the water we drink, journalists serve the public best when we forcefully advocate that the coming changes and upheaval occur in the light of day.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 8. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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