I first visited the unique, sculpted canyons of southern Utah on September 12, 2001, a day after the terror attacks that rocked the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93.
I had been teaching back-to-back outdoor education expeditions on the Green and Yampa Rivers in northeast Utah all spring and summer, and I needed a break. After postponing our trip on September 11 – we had just begun our drive south when the attacks occurred – to check on family and friends and to grieve with the rest of the world, a friend and I started our drive into Ed Abbey’s beloved landscapes on the afternoon of Sept 12, hoping to find solace.
A relatively unpopulated region to begin with, Utah’s canyon country was unusually empty of people at the time for obvious reasons. Due to the no-fly rule, not a single airplane dotted the sky for two days and nights. The weather was calm and crystal clear. Stars shone unimpeded overhead, owls hooted and coyotes serenaded without competition. Gurgling water echoed off of canyon walls.
Fifteen years later, my overwhelming memory of that trip is of the peacefulness, solitude and stillness that we experienced as we explored the canyons of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, created in 1996, and what would later become the Bears Ears National Monument, a half-day’s drive to the east from Grand Staircase.
Our experience was not unique
Public lands and rivers give us the space to celebrate, to grieve, to explore, and to reflect. In them, we learn to rely upon ourselves in ways that most of us don’t experience in our workday lives.
Coming upon hidden glens of dripping, maidenhair ferns croaking with canyon tree frogs, or 700-year-old Ancestral Puebloan ruins perched high above a river in a south-facing grotto, provide a much-needed connection to times and worlds beyond our own. In a nation as young as ours, forged by wild country and created in response to the landed nobility of Europe, these treasures are our Sistine Chapels, our open-aired museums.
Our public lands are quintessentially American: owned by all of us and democratically managed on our behalf for current and future generations. Public lands are an essential part of what makes this country great. They are the birthright of all Americans.
On December 28, 2016, President Obama designated 1.35 million acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management [BLM] and U.S. Forest Service in San Juan County as the Bears Ears National Monument in order to preserve and protect sensitive archeological, ecological, and cultural resources.
This set of archeologically rich, high plateaus and canyons that feed the San Juan and Colorado Rivers with clean, desert snowmelt is now protected on our behalf by the two federal agencies plus a commission made up of elected officers from the Hopi Nation, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Uintah Ouray Ute Tribe, and the Zuni Tribe.
Your Public Lands are Under Attack
The unique canyons and rivers of Utah’s canyon country are also ground-zero in the movement to transfer our public lands to state and private interests, presumably in search of additional profits through sale and exploitation.
Bears Ears National Monument faces the threat of privatization and oil and gas development, while Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is in the crosshairs for a massive proposed coal mine.
Both are also threatened with de-designation as national monuments along with Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument additions in Southern Oregon. This has never happened before during the 110-year history of the Antiquities Act.
While mining, drilling, and development have their places, Bears Ears is not one of them. Bears Ears is home to one of the highest concentrations of backcountry archeological sites in the U.S. The incomparable canyons of the Escalante River, eligible for designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, are worth more than coal. Some of our most beloved national parks were first created through national monument designations: Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Acadia, Olympic, Death Valley, Capitol Reef, and many others.
What are these lands worth to you?
What are these areas worth to us as a country, as a culture, as Americans? American Rivers is dedicated to protecting your national public lands and rivers from transfer, sale or degradation. We need your help.
Tell your Congressional delegate that you want to maintain your birthright as an American. Our public lands, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments, should stay public and intact.