|Outside magazine, April 1997
It seemed such a grand gesture, the creation of America’s newest and second-largest national monument. Yet when Grand Staircase-Escalante was pen-stroked into being, it became not just a magnificent place of solitude and splendor, but also one of bile and vowed revenge.
The morning of September 18, 1996 dawned cold and cloudy on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, but the foretaste of autumn on the high desert did nothing to dampen the joy felt by the crowd gathered there. They had come to celebrate a major victory for the western environmental movement, for shortly Bill Clinton was arriving, accompanied by Al Gore and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, to proclaim that 1.7 million acres of federal land in southern Utah would become Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The president had acted with breathtaking suddenness–news of the new monument had been leaked only a few days earlier–and without public debate or the advice and consent of Congress. His legal authority to do so, however, was explicit: The Antiquities Act of 1906 empowers the president to unilaterally set aside chunks of the public domain as national monuments.
Still, Clinton had made a number of concessions to local interests. Existing grazing privileges would be respected within the monument’s boundaries. Hunting would continue to be permitted. Compensation would be offered to those holding oil and coal leases. The new monument also contained some 200,000 acres of school-trust land deeded to Utah by the federal government at statehood; by law any revenue produced by this land was pledged to Utah’s public-education infrastructure, but the president was promising that the school-trust land would be exchanged for federal acreage of comparable value outside the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante. And during a three-year planning period during which policy would presumably be set, the monument would be managed not by outsiders from the National Park Service, as might have been expected, but by local officials of the Bureau of Land Management.
“The devil will be in the details” of future management decisions, according to one of the victors, Ken Rait, issues director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Yet there was little for environmentalists to complain about today, for some of the most bitterly contested territory in the West was now protected within the largest national monument in the Lower 48. Perhaps even more significant than its size was its strategic position in southern Utah, for as the president’s official proclamation pointed out, the monument linked up with Bryce Canyon National Park, Dixie National Forest, the Box Death Hollow Wilderness, Capitol Reef National Park, and Glen Canyon National Recreational Area to make a vast garment of protected lands. The ecological virtue here was that the new linkage would provide extensive natural corridors allowing wildlife from one protected area to migrate, to mix, and to breed in another, thereby deepening gene pools that in time might otherwise become fatally isolated.
Heavyweights of the environmental movement preceded the president to the podium, led by Terry Tempest Williams, the poet of the wild, who intoned the monument’s place names with biblical solemnity. Robert Redford lent the prestige of his presence to the occasion and made brief, pointed remarks. And Charles Wilkinson, a professor of law at the University of Colorado and the preeminent authority on western land use, retailed the historic precedents for Clinton’s action. “The grandest, most electrifying moments in American conservation history have always been reserved for the setting aside of large blocks of pristine land for protection,” Wilkinson said. Then it was time for the Great Chameleon himself, this day looking very verdant indeed.
As always, the president’s address was brilliant theater. Dressed casually in a sport shirt, khaki slacks, and cowboy boots, he seemed every inch “our environmental president,” as Al Gore described him in his introduction. With the Canyon behind him now lit brightly by the sun, Clinton reminded his audience that the Grand Canyon itself had once been threatened by mining and dam-building. “Fortunately, these plans were stopped by farsighted Americans who saw that the Grand Canyon was a national treasure,” he declared. He then cited the words of Theodore Roosevelt: “Leave the Grand Canyon as it is. You cannot improve upon it. What you can do is keep it for your children, your children’s children, all who come after you.” (He might have added that Teddy Roosevelt, with prodding from John Muir, had been instrumental in creating the Antiquities Act and thus in giving the president the right to establish monuments by executive fiat.) Of Grand Staircase-Escalante itself, Clinton said, “On this remarkable site, God’s handiwork is everywhere–in the natural beauty of the Escalante canyons and in the Kaiparowits Plateau, in the rock formations that show layer by layer billions of years of geology, in the fossil records of dinosaurs and other prehistoric life, in the remains of ancient American civilizations.”
The fact that the president was speaking so glowingly of a place in southern Utah from one in northern Arizona was hardly lost on so knowing a crowd. From the moment news of the monument reached Utah, opposition was vocal and vociferous, particularly in the southern part of the state. The president’s decision was immediately denounced as election-year pandering to the environmental vote, and Republican governor Mike Leavitt and the state’s entire congressional delegation were conspicuously absent from the South Rim ceremony. Utah’s lone Democratic congressman, Bill Orton, had been as stunned and surprised as his Republican colleagues, and perhaps even more dismayed, foreseeing that the president’s bold stroke might well cost him his House seat in November. (It did.)
To the president’s audience, nothing could have seemed less likely a year and a half earlier than that Bill Clinton would be in a position to behave so defiantly. His passing reference to the Kaiparowits Plateau glossed over the fact that his action had virtually doomed coal-mining operations on the plateau, mining that advocates say would have created hundreds of jobs and billions of dollars in state revenue. As a reminder of federal hegemony, it enraged western Republicans; as a confiscatory edict, it dashed the hopes of southern Utahans looking for a new mineral-extraction boom. In the economically moribund small towns surrounding the monument, there were protests, and soon there were lawsuits. Angry local governments displayed their contempt for the monument–and the future wilderness designations they feared it portended–by sending bulldozers out to cut guerrilla roads in the desert.
In 1995, after the Republicans’ stunning success in the off-year elections, Newt Gingrich was being described in the national media as the most influential individual in Washington, and the president as the most irrelevant. With great fanfare, Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) had introduced aggressively prodevelopment legislation that would have thrown open nearly half of Utah’s remaining protected lands. Now, at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on the day Clinton came to the Grand Canyon, Hatch called the president’s action “the mother of all land grabs.” “Does President Clinton have any idea that he is locking up 62 billion tons of the cleanest, most environmentally beneficial coal in the United States?” he asked. And that same day, on the floor of the Senate, Hatch threw down the gauntlet. “This issue is not over,” he declared. “William Jefferson Clinton’s signature on this order isn’t the end of it. We cannot suffer this kind of an assault on Utah without a fight. So, today it begins.”
This is Ed Abbey country they’re fighting over, though the locals and the congressional delegation would hardly claim him as its human voice. From the vermilion and mauve Circle Cliffs in the north to the naked gray and ochre stone of Smoky Mountain in the south, the landscape of Grand Staircase-Escalante possesses an almost incredible variety. In between are natural arches, slot canyons, hoodoos, faults, folds, lava beds, sandy washes, and Anasazi and Fremont cultural sites and artifacts. There are broad bronze-colored canyon bottoms, forests of pi˜on and juniper, hanging gardens, and dunes. As its enthusiasts have said, it is “a fierce and dangerous place, wilderness right down to its burning core.” To those who have been granted even a brief exposure to its edges, it is all of that and more. If, for instance, you were to hike out of the village of Boulder, near the northern boundary of the monument, toward the Circle Cliffs, you’d find yourself moving through sheer and silent vaults of time, the glistening palisades of Navajo sandstone rising on either side of you and closing in behind you where the trail twists, so that at last you’re forced to acknowledge your puny mortality in the presence of this utterly impersonal power. And when you’ve topped a rise and seen the Circle Cliffs across a vast, shimmering stone valley, you might easily be forgiven for feeling like an intruder. Maybe, you might find yourself thinking, only the Old Ones, the Anasazi, could truly have fit into such a landscape, and even they have gone away.
One Sunday morning this winter, my brother and I set out to drive from Cannonville down along the Cottonwood Canyon Road to Utah 89, which runs roughly parallel to the border with Arizona. The Cottonwood Canyon Road is one of only two passable routes that more or less traverse the monument from north to south, but as a ranger at Kodachrome Basin State Park warned us, it is hardly a highway, and she couldn’t vouch for its condition that day. “It isn’t a good place to get stuck in,” she said. “By Grosvenor Arch, you’ll know.” By Grosvenor Arch, ten miles south, the blue clay surface seemed safe enough, except in a few hollows where it was soft and greasy, and in narrow cuts where it lay in frosty shadow.
As we drove, our talk turned back to the hike we’d taken the day before from the Dry Fork trailhead down through Spooky Canyon and then through a bit of Brimstone Canyon. Bevin Taylor, our guide, was a young woman who leads llama tours through the red rock country from March through October. Our hike through Spooky and Brimstone was one of the few you could do in a day, she told us. Most others require a commitment of three or four days, and with a big storm massing northwest of Salt Lake that wasn’t advisable. “This isn’t exactly country you can meander in and out of,” she said.
Indeed. On foot it seemed just as wild and tumbled a place as it had from our seats in a Cessna a few days earlier: a wilderness of stone, cocoa-colored sand, blackbrush, Mormon tea, and here and there the scoured bones of an ancient cedar. In its tracklessness it was a deeply impressive, even awesome place, made the more so on those couple of occasions when Bevin had to stop and retake her bearings. At one point, after vainly seeking access to the floor of Brimstone Canyon for some 40 minutes, she found a crack through which she thought we might descend to the canyon floor some 300 feet below.
“You guys want to try it?” she asked. “It’s up to you.”
My brother, a hardy but prudent outdoorsman, inspected what he could see of the crack.
“Fred is expendable, Bevin,” he announced at last. “I am not.” And we retraced our steps along the rim in the lengthening shadows. Lichens that had been a pale green on the noon rocks now burned a cobalt blue in the lowering winter light, and the landscape of our lighthearted adventure began to take on a shade of menace. There were no tracks here to guide us over the stones, only Bevin’s experienced sense of where we were and where we should be heading. Nor was there any sound, other than our occasional voices, no birds calling about us, only a couple of ravens circling so high above they might have been voiceless pieces of black tin cut out of the evening sky. In those few moments all talk of politics, of coal deposits and school-trust lands, was rendered foolishly inconsequential by the scale, the solitude, the hard, unharmonized beauty of a place truly owned by no one.
But politics had made Grand Staircase-Escalante, just as it had nearly undone this same landscape little more than a year earlier. In June of 1995, with the Republican-dominated 104th Congress in the ascendency, Senator Hatch and Representative Jim Hansen (R-Utah), in consultation with Governor Mike Leavitt, submitted a bill that delighted everyone who wished to exploit Utah’s backcountry for its coal, oil, and mineral riches. Their proposal to set aside nearly two million acres statewide as protected wilderness, they said, was based on careful on-site analysis and on the informed advice of local communities. But the authors of the bill, which they dubbed the Utah Public Lands Management Act, went a long step further, attaching to their proposal so-called hard release language, whereby all Utah public lands not specifically protected as part of the 1.8 million acres could never again be considered for protection. If the bill were to be signed into law, its proponents argued, it would settle once and for all the long, acrimonious debate about the uses of public lands in Utah. “We really selected the crown jewels,” Senator Hatch boasted, while hastening to add that none of these crown jewels “included any BLM lands that have high resource-development potential.”
Environmentalists vowed to defeat the bill. “Both sides concur on one thing,” the Washington Post reported. “The Utah wilderness legislation will spark a monumental battle.”
Months of skirmishing followed, but the battle was never seriously joined. By January 1996, following the unpopular shutdown of the federal government, the president had regained the public relations initiative. In late March, when the bill finally neared a vote in the Senate, the Utah delegation failed to find sufficient support on the Hill. The legislation died, and it can now be seen as part of a seriously flawed Republican strategy that misunderstood the message that the electorate had sent in the 1994 elections. After the summer conventions, with Clinton enjoying a commanding lead over Bob Dole in the polls, the president was in a position to repair his damaged relationship with environmentalists without significant risks for his campaign.
Just why he chose southern Utah is a matter of dispute. Some in the environmental movement believe he became converted by the national campaign sustained in recent years by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and its allies, including Robert Redford. Indeed, one of the ways in which the Hatch-Hansen legislation backfired was by mobilizing the opposition, which in turn won crucial allies in the White House. Other activists said it was characteristic Clinton opportunism: He wasn’t going to get Utah’s five electoral votes (he had come in third in Utah behind Bush and Perot in 1992), but the creation of the monument might well help the incumbent in California, with its whopping 54 electoral votes, and in the Northwest, where Clinton’s signing of the infamous salvage logging rider had been widely viewed as a betrayal.
Outside the environmental movement, speculation ranged from the snide to the sinister. Clinton, it was suggested, had been waiting to stick it to the senior senator from Utah, and here was a grandstand opportunity to do just that. After the election, a more sinister scenario emerged in the vacuous scuttlebutt of the Internet, in a Rush Limbaugh radio diatribe, and on the op-ed page of the Washington Times. Here the president was seen participating in an international plot. By creating Grand Staircase-Escalante, according to this theory, the president was freezing coal mining in the monument and thus precluding the possibility that the huge deposits of low-sulfur “super compliance” coal in the Kaiparowits Plateau would eventually compete with coal of a similar quality marketed around the Pacific Rim by the Riady family of Indonesia, which had been so generous to the Democrats during the presidential campaign.
There is a hell of a lot of low-sulfur coal down there at the monument’s southern tip, but no one really knows just how much there is, how much of it is accessible, or how much it might be worth. Widely varying estimates have been made: The state geologist recently guessed that there might be more than 11 billion tons of recoverable coal within the monument. It lies in great, undulant seams at the southwestern edge of the Kaiparowits Plateau, an area so inaccessible that despite the fact that fossil-fuel prospectors have known about the deposits for more than 30 years, none of the precious stuff has ever been hauled to market. Andalex Resources, a Dutch-based multinational, had leased 25,000 acres that it intended to mine, but following the president’s proclamation the company said the project was dead.
There are some who have felt all along that Andalex’s costs in getting the coal to the Pacific Rim would have been far too high for it to compete with the Indonesian coal already marketed there. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, “The vast Kaiparowits coal field hasn’t been developed in the past because production costs far exceeded the coal’s value.” Meanwhile, Governor Leavitt’s office and the congressional delegation had been claiming that with the cancellation of the Andalex mine, Utah stood to lose $1 billion for the state’s education system. Yet in a 1993 study of the mine’s potential, the governor’s own Office of Planning and Budget concluded that if Andalex could annually produce 2.5 million tons of coal, its sales would be $48.8 million annually. Out of that, $7.8 million would come from coal extracted from school-trust lands. Andalex would pay an 8 percent royalty on this to the school trust fund, or about $624,000 a year. The trust fund, in turn, could spend only the interest from that money.
In the immediate aftermath of the president’s creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante, Senator Hatch bore down hard on the billion in revenues his state would never see, and you’d have thought the president’s gift to future generations of Americans would mean that future generations of Utah’s kids would have to get along without blackboards and textbooks and maybe shoes, too. You wouldn’t have guessed that the senator’s suddenly disinherited state is actually one of the most economically healthy states in the union. You wouldn’t have guessed, either, that an ever-increasing portion of the fuel driving this prosperity is made up of dollars poured into Utah by those drawn to its natural wonders.
In Escalante, near the monument’s northern edge, they hanged a composite figure of Clinton and Babbitt in effigy. The town of Kanab shut down for an hour while the South Rim ceremonies were in progress. Flags flew at half-mast, and 50 black balloons were released in symbolic warning to other states that their lands and livelihoods could just as easily be snatched from them. High school girls cried and hugged one another in the hallways, and a former county commissioner informed all who would listen that as of the presidential proclamation the people of Kane County now lived under the jurisdiction of the United Nations.
Kanab lies 70 miles west of the proposed mine site. It’s one of those wind-warped, hard-bitten towns you encounter these days anywhere in the west between Sioux City and the slopes of the Sierra. In Kanab, they’ve been hanging on, waiting for one mining company after another to commence operations and bring jobs to a community that hasn’t seen good times since the uranium boom of the fifties. They’d been waiting for those new roads, new health care facilities, and the expanded and refurbished school the money would buy. Most of its citizens, it was said, were cheerfully prepared to put up with the day-and-night rumble of huge trucks hauling the coal through town on the way to a rail load-out in Iron Springs, because something more vital was at stake here than peace and quiet: The Andalex mine would give Kanab’s young people a good reason not to move away.
In Kane and Garfield Counties, the federal government sued local officials after they sent bulldozers into the newly created monument to turn faint two-track trails into maintained roads that would disqualify the lands from being considered wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. But those officials know full well that the lands the chief executive stole from Utah were already owned by the federal government and have always been used by locals and visitors alike with the blessing and consent of that government. It’s simply that over time those who have used the lands the most, the Utahans, have come to regard them as essentially their own.
Jerry Meredith, the man in charge of the new monument, understands how this came about. A month after Grand Staircase-Escalante was created, Meredith, a 47-year-old career BLM man, was appointed monument manager, and he has the unenviable job of overseeing operations in the three-year interim period during which monument policy will be established. I found him a fair-minded man, sympathetic to all sides–and resigned to failing to satisfy all of them.
Meredith is a third-generation Utahan whose cowboy uncles used the federal lands just like everybody else they knew and who regarded the federal presence on the lands as unwarranted and intrusive. “These are all people,” Meredith said of his family and friends, “who have historically run cattle on federal lands, who have hunted on them. They’ve grown up with federal land around them, and their whole lifestyle is based on the existence of these lands.” He paused for emphasis and then added, “But the simple fact is that the government has always owned the lands, and that ownership has underwritten that lifestyle.”
The roots of this contradictory and volatile situation go back further than even the settlement of Utah in the 1840s. The existence of the public domain out of which the president carved the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was a historical accident that the founding fathers hadn’t foreseen. In the immediate aftermath of the Declaration of Independence, the larger seven of the original 13 states laid claim to the largely uncharted and unexplored lands lying to the west. But the smaller six, led by Maryland, correctly saw that if the larger states’ claims were accepted, they would find themselves boxed in along the eastern seaboard and unable to share in the spoils lying west of the Appalachians. Maryland refused to sign the Articles of Confederation until the larger states renounced their western claims. Beginning with New York, in 1780, the larger ones did so. Thus by 1802 the fledgling federal government found itself in possession of an embarrassment of territorial riches, an embarrassment about to grow much greater with the Louisiana Purchase.
The government’s ruling principle, it often seemed, was that the best exercise of its stewardship would be to convey the public domain into private and state hands as quickly as possible. Thus such legislation as the Ordinance of 1785, the Preemption Act of 1830, the Act of 1850 commencing huge railroad grants, and most famously, the Homestead Act of 1862. Yet all along the government continued to add territory through its dispossession of Indian tribes, the settlement of the Mexican War, and the Gadsden Purchase. Despite its best efforts, the United States couldn’t escape its landlord status, and toward the end of the 1870s it began to dawn on some that there were compelling reasons to hold on to what remained of the public domain: the conservation of finite and fast-disappearing natural resources, for one, and the preservation of places of unusual natural beauty. But by then, wasteful and proprietary habits of mind had been formed, particularly in the west, and when the government began its first, fumbling efforts at more farsighted stewardship, western antagonism was swift and fierce.
There was great opposition to the preservation of Yellowstone and Yosemite, both of which were attacked as the playgrounds of the elite. When timber conservation on federal lands began in earnest in the 1890s, the west rose up, and headlines screamed as if composed by an ancestor of Senator Hatch: THE NEW FORESTRY RESERVES RESULT OF ARBITRARY ACTION OF PRESIDENT CLEVELAND–WESTERN PEOPLE NOT CONSULTED. Passage of the Taylor Grazing Act (1934), which belatedly began systematic rangeland reform, was bitterly resented by western stockmen–and still is by old-timers who talk passionately about government interference in private enterprise. As Terry Tempest Williams has pointed out, when Franklin Roosevelt established a national monument near Jackson Hole during the Second World War, some citizens of Wyoming declared his act the legislative equivalent of Pearl Harbor. (And Wyoming later succeeded in adding a clause to the Antiquities Act of 1906, forbidding the president from establishing new monuments in the state without congressional approval.)
What’s regrettable here isn’t so much the erroneous (and understandable) assumption of de facto local ownership. What’s regrettable is the very idea of individual ownership of these lands, because implicit within it lies the terrible freedom to use them without let or hindrance–and to use them up, if it comes to that. The degraded state of our public rangelands and watercourses, the played-out mines and their equally played-out towns, show us too plainly the consequences of this freedom, which is an essential part of the secular mythology of the American west.
There have always been a good many things wrong with this mythology, beginning with the dishonest way in which it treats the dispossession of the indigenous tribes. But at this point in our history it’s possible to see two things about it clearly: It encouraged and even promoted extractive, short-sighted misuse; and whatever primitive utility it may once have had, its day is definitely done.
A new west has been in the making since at least the end of the Second World War. Ranching is no longer the region’s dominant economic activity, nor are mining and logging, and this is just as true for the counties of southern Utah as it is elsewhere. The west’s newcomers are not drawn here by jobs in ranching or mining or logging; rather they are drawn by work in cities and larger towns and by the scenery and scale of things in the countryside adjacent. However unfair it may seem to the sons and daughters of the pioneers, the newcomers and the rest of the nation want something different from the west than beef and coal and lumber. What America wants from the west is the experience of unspoiled space, an encounter, however cushioned, with the last visible vestige of what was once the New World.
LEAVE IT LIKE IT IS
Three men sat at the counter of the Burr Trail Cafe in Boulder, Utah. They were hunters, two of them down from Salt Lake, the other local, but this bright blue morning they were being somewhat leisurely about their sport, having already gotten their elk. Val, John, and Keith were kidding around with Billie Jones, the proprietor, while she fried up some ham and eggs.
Val and John were retired workers formerly employed at a Kennecott mine. When the talk turned to Grand Staircase- Escalante, Val said he wasn’t especially interested in why the president had chosen southern Utah; he was just glad he had. “You travel from Salt Lake all the way to the Mississippi, and except for a place like Yellowstone or that park they have there in South Dakota, it’s all taken up–all of it. I’d like my children and grandchildren to have a place right here in southern Utah that hasn’t been taken up, that’s like it always was.” Stroking his beard, Val added, “Over the long haul, the monument’ll generate more money for the economy than the mine would have. You’re going to get motels, restaurants, gas stations, and outfitters.”
John was shaking his head and stirring his coffee. He didn’t disagree with his friend about the virtue of open space in southern Utah, but Val was wrong in his assessment of the monument’s economic impact. “You’re talking about $4.50-an-hour service jobs,” he said evenly. “Flipping hamburgers isn’t the same as mine-related work, driving the trucks and so forth. How’re people going to send their kids to college on those kinds of jobs? What’ll they retire on?”
Keith looked like an unwashed Gabby Hayes, his beard matted, his jeans spattered with blood. I never found out what he did; he may have worked as a caretaker at a nearby ranch. Now he turned on his stool and said, “I don’t like Slick Willie, and I don’t want no monument, period. You’ll notice he didn’t dare come over here to announce it. Stayed over there in Arizona where he was safe.” With that he turned his back on me and picked moodily at his plate of biscuits and white gravy.
When the men had gone, Billie, a blond woman in her fifties with startling blue eyes, assured me that Keith was merely expressing the sentiments of many locals who valued their relative isolation and were fearful that things would now change.
“For one thing, big money’s going to come in here,” she said. “It’s already here. Out-of-towners have been applying for well permits here to build second homes, and you’ve got the fancy lodge next door. There was a ranch sold here not long ago for over a million. When I came down here in 1984, ranch land was going for $400 an acre. Now it’s $7,500 an acre. Well, I didn’t come down here to get rich.” She laughed and took a swipe at her plywood counter, into which local cattle brands had been burned.
“Over the mountain in Torrey they’ve gotten Best Western in there and Holiday Inn and Subway,” she continued. “I know I can’t compete with those kinds of franchises. There just isn’t any way I can. The little fellow, the small rancher, the small businessperson is going to get squeezed out eventually. Oh, some will survive, but a lot won’t, and I find that kind of sad. If you were to come back ten years from now, I don’t think you’d find me here.
“Why do these people here, many of them descendants of the original settlers, have to make way for the environmentalists and the hikers?” She smiled again and took another perfunctory swipe at the counter.
A few days earlier, I spent some time with one of those small ranchers who is going to survive in the new Utah, and who had begun to make the transition some time ago. Lavar Wells still runs a few head of cattle on his Hanksville ranch, but in recent years he has been making his living as a pilot, flying charter flights in a single-engine Cessna. He flew us south over the monument’s eastern boundary, where it hooks on to Capitol Reef and Glen Canyon.
He said the company he flew for was planning regular excursion flights over the area this summer. “But it really isn’t that spectacular,” he claimed. “All the real pretty stuff’s already been protected. Look down there,” he said, pointing beneath us. “That’s your monument. Who wants to spend a lot of time tramping around in the cedars?” Below, just at the moment, was a vast expanse of snow-flecked red rock and sparsely spaced cedars between which we could see thin, meandering livestock trails. “We never stopped the backpackers from doing whatever they wanted in here. They could’ve had their wilderness, and everything would’ve gone on like always. Now, things are going to change, and we’re not the only ones who aren’t going to like what’s coming. You’re going to have roads and comfort stations and rangers in here where they weren’t before.”
His apprehensions are shared by people from both sides of the issue: Some supporters of the new monument have expressed apprehension over the introduction of “industrial tourism,” and some have predicted that the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance will eventually find itself in conflict with out-of-state visitors who will come to the monument expecting at least some concessions to tourists. Jerry Meredith, the man in the middle, told me he wondered whether it makes good sense to create an enticement to casual vacationers without at the same time making it more accessible. As it stood, he said, the BLM might find itself spending a lot of time rescuing the unwary and underprepared.
Lavar Wells said he and others like him were prepared for the worst. “Right now,” he said, turning westward into a 72-knot headwind howling off the Kaiparowits, “they’re telling us private inholdings will be respected and that we can go on running cattle in here just like always. We’ve been told that before and then found the rules changed on us.”
The monument and its federal bureaucrats were bound to make things worse in southern Utah, Wells thought. So did Met Johnson. I visited him at his ranch south of Cedar City, where he raises horses and coordinates the activities of the grassroots political organization he founded, the Western States Coalition. He is a huge, red-faced Jack Mormon who is one of the west’s most vocal and visible critics of federal land policy. A bumper sticker on a truck outside his office read, hungry or out of work? eat an environmentalist. But he was friendly in a bluff way and supplied an ideologue’s quick-draw answers to the questions I put to him.
He told us it had been newly elected President Clinton’s appointment of Bruce Babbitt as Interior Secretary that had sparked the formation of the Western States Coalition back in 1993. Babbit was a man “you simply can’t educate about reality,” Johnson claimed, “because he’s so caught up trying to appease Gore and the green groups.” Johnson maintained that preservation actually damages land far more than ranchers, loggers, or miners ever did. “These designations,” he asserted with considerable force, “are like dropping sugar in front of ants. We preserved these lands for generations. My ancestors pulled handcarts in here, and the places they used look the same today as they did back then. Now though, with wilderness study areas and monuments and parks, there are places in this country you can’t go in summer because of the stench of urine and human waste. There’re so many people drawn to the accessible spots that they’re ruined for everybody!”
The real polluters and despoilers, he claimed, were thus the environmentalists. “We can’t even take care of what we’ve got, and here we’re adding more.” Zero Wilderness is, in effect, the motto of the WSC: no more public lands preservation in Utah–or anywhere else in the west. Beyond that, the group’s more immediate agenda is the opening up of certain currently protected areas and the decommissioning of some national parks, an idea floated last year by Representative Hansen. For the moment, the Western States Coalition is mounting a legal challenge to the new monument, but ultimately it is challenging the federal government’s right to restrict the uses to which the land may be put.
In its suit against the president and Bruce Babbitt, the WSC and the Mountain States Legal Foundation have employed a legal blunderbuss approach, seeking to have the monument abolished on grounds ranging from alleged abuse of the Antiquities Act to the unconstitutionality of the Act itself. The suit also asks for relief from the infringement of rights and privileges the government has said wouldn’t be affected by the president’s proclamation: the use of private inholdings, and hunting, fishing, and other forms of recreation. Buried in the list of these affected rights and privileges lies the explosive issue of roads in wilderness areas. Ken Rait of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance suggests that the problem of preemptive road-building reaches beyond the already disputed monument confines and toward the rest of Utah’s undeveloped federal lands. Here the question is, When does a two-track trail become a mechanically maintained road that disqualifies the land as a potential wilderness? One answer: When county officials send bulldozers in to “brighten those roads up,” as Kane County commisioner Joe Judd aggressively puts it.
Meanwhile, die-hard opponents of the monument may have been silently abandoned by Orrin Hatch. The fire-breathing senator’s Washington office recently said that in the wake of President Clinton’s reelection, Hatch had accepted the monument as a fait accompli. The senator, a spokesperson said, felt he had done what he could, but he still hoped to engineer a legislative dilution of the Antiquities Act.
This wrangling over public lands is clearly a fight that will not be settled any time soon, since it has been so long in the making and runs so deep in the national history. Indeed, the likelihood is that it will never be definitively settled and that successive generations of Americans will be called upon to fight it again and again over this piece of the landscape and that one. Most of these battles will be fought in the West, and the major antagonists will be the conservation-oriented groups that cheered President Clinton’s creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante versus those who have grown up believing that local users deserve first–and last–call on how the public lands are used: the same sides, in other words, that battled it out in graffiti on the Burr Trail Road culvert outside Boulder.
Met Johnson and the officials who are sending out the men in the bulldozers that are cutting new roads–these people would have you believe that the disposition of the 1.7 million acres in southern Utah has by no means been decided. If there is to be a monument at all, they’ll tell you, it will look a great deal different from the one proclaimed by the president back in September 1996. The monument’s advocates will tell you they’re taking the legal challenge to the monument very seriously. Somehow, though, you get the feeling that they believe time and tide are running with them. My own reading of history and its current trends suggests they’re right. Maybe “Asshole” did write “Leave It Like It Is” on that culvert. But his is likely to be the last word–there and elsewhere.
Frederick Turner is the author, most recently, of When the Boys Came Back: Baseball and 1946.