“Our public lands are a place where we can come as we are, and a place where we can also come together.”
This is a quote that I actually came up with myself last spring after the review of the Monuments was put in motion by the current Administration. Having been a lifelong Republican, but also a lover of public lands, I felt disillusioned and betrayed. But instead of ranting and raving and picking sides I delved into what is a Monument and how would this review impact our public lands.
One of the first things I wanted to understand is what is a National Monument?
-A National Monument is protected land created from land that is owned or controlled by the federal government.
-These lands are already public lands that are more often BLM land, National Forest land and/or National Park Service land.
-National Monuments are created by a sitting President or Congress through the power of the Antiquities Act of 1906. Presidents and Congress have also used the Antiquities Act to enlarge already existing national monuments.
-The Antiquities Act was originally and first used to protect mostly prehistoric Native American ruins and artifacts on federal lands in the American West. This was put into law by President Theodore Roosevelt.
-National Monuments often contain historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.
As months went by during the Monument review many people came together in support of these places. Like me, those who love and want to protect our public lands got educated on what a Monument is and how the review might affect these places where we recreate. During this time there was a public comment period where more than 1.2 million people wrote in and expressed their support or dissent of the Monument review. 99% of people wrote in support of these places to stay the same.
After the comment period closed, we waited, and on December 4th of last year, after this overwhelming and unprecedented support for these places, the President signed an executive order shrinking both the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments.
During this time, I started to think about why these places. I had been to Grand Staircase before, but never Bears Ears, and in addition to these places, there was still another 25 on the list whose fate was mostly unknown. That’s when I decided to take action. Why not go to these places and find out what makes them special and why we should both protect and preserve them.
Thankfully, I knew that I was not the only one who cared about these places, so friend and female photographer/videographer Elisabeth Brentano and I started planning a road trip. We quickly became interested in several different Monuments on this list. Places like Organ Pipe Cactus, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, and of course the two most well known and contested places: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments.
I’ve been on the ambassador team here at Merrell for going on three years, and what I also know about them is that they too care about public lands. After all, they make the gear that we need to take us to these places and their new adopted slogan “When you’ve got air in your lungs and good shoes on your feet, you’ve got everything you need.” Merrell believes in the power of the trail and the power of where their footwear takes you here on these public lands and wild places. Merrell stepped up and supported this trip, and on May 7th we hit the road for our first stop, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is one of the two monuments that has decidedly been shrunk by the current administration. The proposed boundaries will shrink the monument from 1.7 million acres to just over 1 million acres and remove monument protection for key areas like Hole In The Rock Rd and the Dry Fork slot canyons. When we visited the ranger station in Escalante they were already giving out the new maps which reflected these boundaries. Having been here before and given this map, my heart sank. We spent three days in Escalante, hiking most all of the slot canyons and backpacking through Coyote Gulch. On the last day, I took some time to further study the map and there was one thing that jumped out at me and that was the new planning units which included much all of the Kaiparowits Plateau area. The reason that this was significant was because there has been several mentions and much debate over this geological area and it didn’t take me long to figure out why. The Kaiparowits Plateau is a large, elevated sedimentary rock formation that runs parallel to Hole In The Rock Rd, which is where much of the most popular and treasured landscapes are within the Monument. The Kaiparowits Plateau is 1,600 square miles in size and it is reported to contain an estimated 5 to 7 billion tons of recoverable coal. While no claims have been staked in this area after we returned from our trip a Canadian mining company by the name of by the name of Glacier Lake Resources issued a statement about the 200 acres of land that they leased that are within the current Monument. On March 29th, Glacier Lake staked 10 claims within the monument, each of them just over 20 acres. As much as I wanted to believe that the new Monuments would make for better land management, these proposals and land sales within the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument made me realize that this land is for sale and once these places are dug up, they will never be the same.
We went to Bears Ears with our hearts a little heavy. We had found and ‘went down the rabbit hole’ and what we learned in Escalante would change the way we saw every place on our road trip over the next six weeks. We started out in Bears Ears with NativesOutdoors founder, Len Necefer who is Navajo and he took us out on the trail. Seeing this place through his eyes and as he called it, ‘the first classroom’ we again felt joy and hope in understanding how sacred these places are and what their history means to Native American people. The next day we stopped by what will be the new Bears Ears Education Center and met with Josh Ewing. Josh resides in the Bluff area and has come to be totally in love with the landscape and but invested in it too. He says “just loving a place is not enough. You have to protect it.” We saw this in evidence as we visited what was just a few of the 100,000+ archeological sites that make up Bears Ears National Monument.
Next up on our agenda was to travel to New Mexico, which is where several of the Monuments on the review list are located. We headed to the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, Gila National Forest, Organ Pipe Desert Peaks National Monument with a quick stopover at White Sands National Monument. One of our most notable encounters while in New Mexico was with a ranger at Organ Pipe Desert Peaks National Monument. He had stopped by our campsite just to check in before nightfall, and he wound up staying around for an hour chatting with us about our trip and what challenges they face as rangers in this day and age. Among the things we talked included issues like setting up and maintaining dispersed and backcountry campsites, the multiple uses of this particular Monument and how divided the people who both travel here and live around the area in terms of their recreation use. In fact, Organ Pipe Desert Peaks National Monument is one of just few Monuments that allow for use of firearms. It is truly a multi-use recreation area that caters to all, and since it was made the review list, visitation is at an all-time high. This makes for policing and enforcement of rules to be a challenge for the only three rangers who are on staff in the field. This information surely made us take pause at how we can help in maintaining and conserving this place by making sure we know the rules coming in and following them while we are here.
After our nearly two weeks in New Mexico, we made our way to Arizona. We didn’t spend a lot of time during what was our last leg of the trip but one place that definitely made an impression on us was Canyon De Chelly. Canyon De Chelly is a National Monument that is co-operated by the tribes and the National Park Service. It is unique in that being able to tour the Monument in its entirety requires you to have a Native guide. We took our tour with Howard whose family still owns land inside of the canyon which dates back to five generations. Along our tour, we recognized quickly just how much this place means to Howard. We learned that what we refer to us ruins, Native people often call villages or homes because that’s what they were and still are to those who have ties to the land. We learned of the history here in the canyons and how Natives were forced out and returned decades later to fight for this land to be returned to them.
We wrapped up our trip at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument which upon arriving was a place unlike any other public land or park I have ever visited. This land is just a dozen or so miles from the Mexican border which was evident in the mass amount of signage and border patrol that we saw throughout the three days we spent there. This Monument was reflective upon all of what we had experienced during this trip, in that each of these places are unique and one set of treatment and rules can’t possibly work for or should be applied to all of these places when lumped together. The history, the geology, the size and the landscapes of each of these places are widely different from one another, as are the communities, towns, and places that lie both outside and within them.
But, throughout our six weeks, there was one thing that remained the same and is how I started out feeling about these places and this trip, and that is: “Our public lands are a place where we can come as we are, and a place where we can also come together.”
Right now as I write this, there is much we can do about the state of our public lands and how we can step up to preserve and protect them.
There is an open comment period for the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, you can submit your comment HERE until November 30th. This comment period allows for you to draft your own statement about what this place or any public land means to you and how you would like to see it mapped in present day and for future generations.
You can donate to various organizations and interests who are helping to fight the changes made to both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, here are some that I am confident are both ethical and really doing the work:
And, last but not least, you can VOTE. Much of the clamoring about what do about public lands happen at both state and local level. This means that the turnout for midterms this year has never been more important as they concern the future of our public lands. Outdoor Industry Association has created a campaign called Vote The Outdoors which has past records for how candidates representing you have voted for recreation, environmental and public lands issues. You can visit the advocacy portion of their website to see who is running and how those candidates align with you and your values as they concern our public lands.
I want to thank everyone who has read, watched and followed along with all the media and storytelling of this trip. A big thank you to Merrell for being both a company and a people who weren’t afraid to jump on board, come along and support the awareness of how we can work together to both preserve and protect these places.
“During this trip, I got to not only find out how much these places mean to me but also how much they mean to others. But coming here and enjoying them, photographing and writing about them isn’t enough. These places need our care and protection because once they’re gone, we will never get them back. Our public lands are a place where we can come as we are and also a place where we can come together. And right now, there is no better time, no better reason for us to come together on this: Protecting and preserving our public lands.” – Nicole Brown, Merrell Ambassador