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Op-Ed | Bears Ears And Grand Staircase: A Plea To Interior Secretary Zinke


The Grand Staircase-Escalante is one of two national monuments in Utah that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is reviewing to determine whether they're too big/BLM

Editor's note: The following column is from Frederick Swanson, a Salt Lake City-based writer working on a history of southern Utah’s national parks and monuments.

To Ryan Zinke, Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.:

Dear Mr. Secretary,

I hope you enjoyed your recent visit to Utah, and especially to Cedar Mesa and the new Bears Ears National Monument down in San Juan County. I read that you visited Butler Wash, among other places, and got a glimpse of the ancient Puebloan dwellings that are found throughout this monument. As you gazed up at those venerable stone structures tucked in beneath the cliff, I hope that you thought for a minute about the transience of civilizations and the need to ensure a better future for our own lives here in the American West.

Everyone who visits these ancient dwelling places comes away with different impressions. For many Native Americans who live in the Four Corners area, these are not “ruins” at all, but sacred sites representing the history of their people. Just as we of European descent look at an ancient Greek temple or a Roman aqueduct as signs of civilization, these Ancestral Puebloan sites are worthy of respect and veneration. That’s part of the reason behind the Bears Ears monument — to protect an irreplaceable cultural heritage that is in real danger of being degraded or lost altogether.

Bears Ears National Monument represents a new approach to land protection — one that recognizes the long history of Native peoples in this land. It establishes a Bears Ears Commission consisting of elected representatives of the five tribes or nations that have a direct stake in these lands. The Department of the Interior, in the words of the monument proclamation, must “carefully and fully consider integrating the traditional and historical knowledge and special expertise of the Commission” in formulating a management plan for the monument.

I would add that President Obama’s proclamation also recognizes the important role of the Mormon settlers who arrived in this area much later and staked out homesteads in this harsh, unforgiving land. The proclamation specifically allows livestock grazing to continue, in contrast to many national parks and monuments where grazing leases have been retired or bought out.

My family, too, has a personal stake in these lands. As the urban Wasatch Front becomes increasingly crowded and polluted, we head to the Escalante Canyons, the Paria River country, the Dark Canyon Plateau, and Cedar Mesa, which you just visited. We have wonderful memories of hiking and camping in these places. When our daughter was 4 years old, we took her down Kane Gulch, a tributary of Grand Gulch, for a couple nights’ campout. She made the 4-mile walk on her own and helped us set up the tent before a rainstorm broke loose. We climbed up to a gigantic overhang in the cliffs as sheets of rain swept across the canyon. At our feet, we could see obvious evidence that many others had taken shelter here long ago.

Our 4-year-old has matured into a strong young woman who, at the time I write this, is shepherding out-of-state visitors down Utah’s wild rivers. She is part of a growing industry that depends on our scenery — and which contributes a significant share to the economy of southeastern Utah.

The people who make their living from recreation-related pursuits don’t just use our five national parks. Southern Utah’s seven national monuments (Dinosaur, Cedar Breaks, Rainbow Bridge, Natural Bridges, Hovenweep, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Bears Ears) also contribute a growing share to the outdoor industry — especially the latter two, by virtue of being the largest. So it is with real alarm that many in this industry regard the possibility of rescinding these more recent monuments or reducing their size, as you are now considering.

Business groups such as the Escalante-Boulder Chamber of Commerce have been trying to get your ear about this issue, but so far you have not chosen to meet with them. This makes many of us wonder how open your review really is to outside opinions. When your predecessor, Sally Jewell, traveled to Utah in 2016 to consider the Bears Ears proposal, she spent days in the field and in meetings with opponents and proponents alike.

But I’m not writing this in order to defend an industry, important as it is. I want to call your attention to something that tends to get overlooked in these controversies — the long history of efforts to protect Utah’s desert and canyon lands, dating to the early 20th century.

In 1908, professor Byron Cummings, a respected scholar and archaeologist from the University of Utah, called for creating a national park on Cedar Mesa to protect the amazing natural bridges in upper White Canyon. The tiny national monument that Theodore Roosevelt designated that year protected the bridges themselves, but not the surrounding landscape — a place in which (as Cummings wrote), “No atmosphere was ever clearer, no sky ever revealed more of its secrets and more of the beauty and glory of its designing than this.”

The Utah congressional delegation wants President Trump to somehow abolish Bears Ears National Monument/BLM

In 1928, the Kaiparowits Plateau, which forms a major part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, drew a young Princeton student named Clyde Kluckhohn, who spent weeks roaming this remote upland with four of his friends. They found ancient habitation sites, observed bighorn sheep, and marveled at the hundred-mile views. In his 1933 book, Beyond the Rainbow, Kluckhohn, by then a respected anthropologist, wrote that we could “simply turn the [Kaiparowits] into a national preserve denied to settlement. That is not a fantastic suggestion. The area involved is large, but is econom­ically not of great value.” 

It wasn’t just “outsiders” who were calling for protection of these scenic lands. In 1933, Emil Gammeter, a state representative from San Juan County, petitioned the National Park Service to create a park stretching from Monument Valley to Natural Bridges National Monument. In reasoning why, he noted that agriculture and mining in Utah were limited by water supply and international demand, but “our scenery will always be here.” By setting aside these lands for recreational use, he said in a radio interview, “we will have capitalized on one of our biggest assets.”

In 1934, a Texas petroleum geologist named Harry Aurand, after spending months scouting southeastern Utah’s canyons and mesas for oil prospects, decided that much of it was monument-worthy. He asked the National Park Service to consider monuments in little-known places such as Arch Canyon, the Goosenecks of the San Juan River, Dark and Woodenshoe Canyon, and the Kaiparowits Plateau. “The scenic value, the geology involved, and the educational and recreational possibilities of many of the areas I visited in southeastern Utah appear almost limitless,” Aurand wrote.

These suggestions led the Park Service in 1936 to float an even more audacious idea — that of setting aside a 4.5-million-acre national monument in the Utah canyon lands. This grand proposal was immediately shot down by Utah state officials and by southern Utah cattlemen, who feared losing access to rangelands that were, after all, pretty sparse to begin with. As the writer Wallace Stegner observed in 1990, the Escalante national monument “never came to pass; if it had, I suspect that the southern Utah economy would be stronger than it is now, and the wilderness would be more intact.”

I could go on with examples of visitors and Utahns alike who could foresee a robust future for the Beehive State by designating parks, monuments, and wilderness areas. Time tends to show that the places we set aside are worth it, both for economic and environmental reasons. Perhaps that is why your boss, President Trump, wants to act quickly — before even more businesses and outfitters come to depend on Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears. That would certainly undermine his notion that such designations are harmful and unnecessary.

So I would ask you to take a slower approach to this monument review. After all, President Obama’s Bears Ears proclamation changed very little on the ground. Livestock grazing, along with what little mining is occurring, will continue. Roads that are in current use — actual roads, not ATV tracks — will in all likelihood remain open. A whole new plan will have to be devised to manage the monument, and it will give the citizens of San Juan County as well as residents of Utah’s urban areas and people across the nation a chance to weigh in. Notably, the management plan will have direct input from the five Indian tribes that brought the monument idea to the table in the first place. Native American participation has been sorely lacking in the parks arena, and here is a chance to take advantage of their knowledge in protecting lands they hold sacred.

There is no hurry in this, Secretary Zinke. Rushing to undo what your predecessors have done is a mark of desperation, not wisdom. Take counsel from those who have lived on and next to these lands longer than any of us white folks. Their voices join those who have been calling for protection of Utah’s magnificent canyon lands for more than a century. Time, not haste, should be our watchword — the kind of time that is on display in those remarkable stone dwellings you saw up on Cedar Mesa.

Frederick H. Swanson is a writer living in Salt Lake City. He is the author of Dave Rust: A Life in the Canyons and Where Roads Will Never Reach: Wilderness and Its Visionaries in the Northern Rockies (University of Utah Press). He is currently working on a history of southern Utah’s national parks and monuments.

Note: You have until May 26 to comment on the Interior Department’s review of the Bears Ears NM, and until July 10 to comment on Grand Staircase-Escalante and 20 other national monuments created since 1996.

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I came across a Twitter exchange between a citizen and the Department of the Interior.

The DoI person said that the ONLY way any comments will be considered on Bears Ears or the other monuments is if they are submitted via the official DoI comment website online here. <> (If for some reason that link doesn't work, you can go to and enter ''DOI- 2017-0002'' in the Search bar and click "Search")
So please, Mr. Swanson, submit a copy of your excellent letter via the "approved" method, too!

The DoI tweets also said that any phone calls made or letters written, prior to the announcement of the comment period, would not count, either.


You're right, Mike, and thanks for providing the link. (See also Kurt Repanshek's article in National Parks Traveler, May 11, 2017.)  I hope my "open letter" spurs others to register their views, and yes, I did send in my own comments! 


Monuments enrich surrounding communities in countless ways!

Thanks you Fred.  I can't help but wonder how it is that Utah politicians appear ignorant of the history you describe?  Is their goal to be intentionally misleading, or are they just clueless about the history?

Map below, 1936.

Scott, if you live in Utah you should know that it's both of the reasons you mention.

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