National Monument Restructuring Puts Landscape Photography Treasures at Risk

National Monument Restructuring Puts Landscape Photography Treasures at Risk

Photographers across social media channels chimed in late this week as leaked documents were made public by the Washington Post on Thursday detailing the proposed size reductions and restructuring of both the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument as well as the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

Expected to be announced by President Trump on Monday in Salt Lake City, the proposed changes include splitting the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument into three national monuments while shrinking the overall combined footprint from 1.9 million acres to 997,490 acres. The three new monuments would be called the Grand Staircase National Monument, the Kaiparowits National Monument, and the Escalante Canyons National Monument. The Bears Ears National Monument would likewise be divided into two monuments – the Indian Creek National Monument and the Shash Jaa National Monument. With a combined size of 201,396, these two new monuments would be a significant reduction from the current 1.35 million acres of the Bears Ears National Monument.

These proposed changes are ultimately the result of federal, state, and local government officials in Utah who have lobbied for the lands to be opened up to development. The New York Times reported that the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument holds the largest coal reserves in the country with the Kaiparowits Plateau containing at least seven billion tons of coal at a value north of a trillion dollars. Conoco Oil, which owns drilling leases on 140,000 acres within the monument, believes that there are hundreds of millions of barrels of oil available as well.

Plans for coal mining and oil drilling in the region are not new. Going back to the early 1960’s there have been numerous efforts to seek approval for full-scale operations. None have succeeded. In an effort to curb any further debate, in 1996, President Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument all but shutting down the possibility of industrial development. However, with his planned pronouncements in the coming week, President Trump will attempt to abolish a large section of the monument. Many believe he's acting without proper authority. Here’s the situation. In 1906, the Federal Government created the Antiquities Act which grants sitting presidents the power to create national monuments. It also gives the president the power to eliminate or reduce them as well. In 1997, Congress passed the Federal Land and Policy Management Act which seems to go against the Antiquities Act by reserving the power to modify or revoke national monument designations for Congress itself. Given these seemingly conflicting laws, it looks as if there will ultimately be an extended legal battle likely ending with a trip to the United States Supreme Court.

To help understand the impact of the possible changes, David Kingham, a photographer and photography workshop leader, posted a helpful map today on Facebook showing the current Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the proposed reductions. David notes that some key areas within the monument will presumably revert back to the Bureau of Land Management including Dry Forks Slots, Sooner Rocks, Sunset Arch, Toadstools, and Smokey Mountain Road.

Map of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the planned reductions (shown in red).

Why does any of this matter to photographers? The most significant reason is that within a 200-mile radius of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are many of the nation’s most prized national parks and recreation areas including Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Mining, drilling, and power plants could have an adverse impact on not only the immediate area around the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments but these other scenic parks as well.

Having recently driven and explored the nearly 100-mile overland route from Big Water, Utah up to Hole-In-The-Rock Road near Escalante, Utah I can personally vouch for the pristine and spectacular beauty of the region. The drive begins after crossing Wahweap Wash, entering an area the local geologists call “The Moon.” The grayish landscape is technically known as Tropic Shale.

Entering the area of Grand Staircase-Escalante called "The Moon" by local geologists.

In exploring this area, you will find a remarkable amount of ancient mollusk shells (mostly oyster shells), some shark’s teeth (if you know what you’re looking for), and on rare occasions, dinosaur bones. It may seem strange to find these aquatic artifacts in the middle of a desert but around one-hundred million years ago this entire region was near the shoreline of a giant inland sea called the Western Interior Seaway. All of the organic material from that era is what has made the area so rich in coal and petroleum in the present day. Progressing along Smokey Mountain Road you get a sense for how it got its name. The light smoke and haze that can fill the air are from those plentiful coal reserves. Interestingly, lightning strikes ignited the underground coal and it has burned unchecked for at least a century. Next, the Kelly Grade carries you up from the otherworldly Kaiparowits Basin to the plateau where the vistas from the top are simply spectacular. From there travel is across miles and miles of rugged and remote terrain spotted with mesquite shrubs, pinion pines, and extremely large boulders.

Along the overland route from Big Water to Hole-In-The-Rock Road.

Along the way, there are countless photo opportunities including some lesser visited arches and Anasazi granaries. The final few miles of the journey, along Left Hand Collet Canyon Road, is in a deep canyon with sheer walls going by just outside your window. At the top, nearing Hole-In-The-Rock Road, is an interesting place to stop called Twenty Mile Wash. Here the tracks of dinosaurs reveal themselves in faint relief atop the sandstone rock. They are fun to explore but difficult to photograph. Once at Hole-In-The-Rock Road there are slot canyons, crazy rock formations, and many other places to explore in either direction. All-in-all it is a fantastic photographic journey that can be made in a day or a week, it really just depends on the pace you want to set.

It would be extremely sad to see the unique landscape around Grand Staircase-Escalante be altered for all time due to coal mining and oil drilling operations. It would be exponentially more disappointing to allow industrial development to impact the natural beauty of the surrounding parks. National treasures, which have been set aside for the enjoyment of all, could be changed forever if we don’t tread lightly and deliberately.

Steve Cullen's picture

Steve Cullen is a photographer and videographer based in the Pacific Northwest. He's a professional wanderer and night sky nerd trying to capture the spirit of the places he explores through his nightscape, landscape, and aerial work.

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Uh oh! Thanks for the heads up! Random question, are all of those drone shots from inside the parks?

They were shot inside the national monument. In case you are curious, the monument is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, not the National Park Service. As such, flying a drone is permitted. You have to be careful near the beginning of Smokey Mountain Road however since it is very close to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area where UAVs are not permitted to fly. That said, and even though it is fully legal, I try to fly in remote areas where the likelihood of disturbing anyone is slim.

Thanks for bringing more attention to this Steve. Big rally today at the Utah State Capitol to protest these changes, and there will be another on Monday when Trump is in Salt Lake to make his announcement.

You’re welcome. It is important not only to photographers but, in the bigger picture, to the generations that follow.

Is there a general consensus among Utah(ites?) on this issue?

Utahans (I looked it up :-) ) should make the decision. Since these things have to be decided by government, at some level, I think locals should have a larger say, if not the whole say, in such matters.

Utahans is way cooler than Utahites. Thanks for the clarification! I generally agree with what you're saying, I'm interested in any Utahans' (dang, I love that word!) take on it.

Almost makes me want to move to Utah. Almost. ;-)

Haha. Never been, but boy does it look stunning out there.

I've driven through a few times. It kinda gets lost among the more famous sites in that part of the country. When I drove through, about 40 years ago, I spent more time looking for Marie Osmond than picturesque landscapes. :-)

The antiquities act of 1906 gave presidents that power. If Congress didn't like it they could have taken it away. They didn't. That same executive power allows Trump to change the boundaries.
I don't like it either but I think having the power to launch nukes unilaterally is a more significant issue of presidential peril.

Actually, the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the powers of the President in the use of the act. Thus it is Constitutional despite your feelings.

Irrelevant is bringing in the subject of asset seizure, as odious as we both agree it is as it has nothing to do with executive powers.

I understand your sentiment here, and you and others can make a strong case for a repeal of the Antiquities Act, but by the legal precendent of judicial review, the Supreme Court cannot rule “unconstitutionally” as you put it. Their decisions may be appealed and reversed in time, but until that occurs, their decisions are by definition in adherence to the Constitution. They are the final arbiter of a law’s constitutionality.

Yes absolutely. I get what you mean. But strictly and legally speaking, the court determines constitutionality. We can have they opinion that they are wrong (and in fact our opinion can be correct) but a law passed is constitutional until it is deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Take Plessy v Ferguson for example, in which separate but equal racial segregation was upheld as legal. It was in fact an incorrect reading of the 14th Amendment. But separate but equal racial segregation was constitutional until it was deemed unconstitutional and de facto overturned in Brown v BOE over 50 years later. So in the first half of the 20th century, racial seggreation was constitutional, even if it wasn’t.

The wonders and complexities of law!

Please re-read my post carefully: I was referring to the legal status, not the ideological. Legally speaking, racial seggreation was constitutional in the first half of the 20th century. Ideologically it never was in adherence with the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. It was only later when legally segregation was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, who again, are the final arbiters of a law's constitutionality.

I'm in agreement ideologically with you, but the distinction I outlined is accurate. What is "true" and what is "legal" are not always inseperable.

As evidence, this is what I am referring to:

Burton's Legal Thesaurus (2007): "unconstitutional:
adj. referring to a statute, governmental conduct, court decision or private contract...which violate one or more provisions of the U. S. Constitution. The ultimate determination of constitutionality is the United States Supreme Court."

John Bouvier's Law Dictionary (1843):
UNCONSTITUTIONAL. That which is contrary to the constitution.

...The courts have the power, and it is their duty, when an act is unconstitutional, to declare it to be so; but this will not be done except in a clear case and, as an additional guard against error, the supreme court of the United States refuses to take up a case involving constitutional questions, when the court is not full.

OK. I’m interested in intelligent and knowledgeable discussions, not ignorant proclaim actions of dogmatism. So I guess we’re done here.

Stating that those with an interpretation of a legal matter are "at best stupid and insane" or at worst "evil" leaves no room for intelligent conversation, and is highly dogmatic. I'm not interested in this type of conversation.

Please don't take this as a statement against you personally or our conversation on the matter prior to your last statement. I thought our acknowledgement
of each
other's points was
fruitful. But in needing to address your recent statement, I see nothing constructive coming further from this particular

Plus, physically the comment box is way too skinny now!

I understand what you said.
Goodbye, skinny box!

I didn't

Your consideration of "obvious" readings of portions of the Constitution could themselves open to debate. And even if I were to agree with your read, your example of the 2nd amendment can and has been reviewed differently by many intelligent, sane, and moral people on either side of the interpretation. You've shut out any meaningful conversation with absolute judgement of a person's position by labeling anyone who disagrees with your assessment as "stupid" "insane" or "evil". And for that, I've decided to no longer engage with you on this topic. You've left no room for productive discussion.

Now we know, however, that the column width resets. So that was productive!

Congress definitely gave the President that power but they also *may* have taken it away in 1997, at least in terms of the President being able to resize/reorganize a national monument. I'm not a lawyer, but my guess is this will be a landmark case to settle the apparent conflict between the 1906 law and the 1997 law.

I am not sure how it is unconstitutional but if it is, perhaps that’ll be challenged at the Supreme Court level as well.

If the national monument is on land that was already under federal ownership, I don't see a problem. If POTUS was designating private or state owned land as a national monument, then that would be unconstitutional in my opinion

Utah readily agreed to Federal ownership of all land not otherwise appropriated as a condition of statehood. It's in their constitution.

It was based on the Utah Enabling Act of 1894: in which the Federal government demanded rights to all unused lands in the Utah territory as a condition of statehood (probably for the possibility of vast amounts of natural resources). The Utah legislature only agreed to it with the addition of a provision called the Enclave Clause, which garunteed that the lands would be given back to the state after all state dues were paid.

Basically, the federal government reneged, and the state passed a law in 2012 threatening to sue the government for all the public land they were originally afforded. I don’t think anything has come of it yet.

Ridiculous indeed.

The following is worth a read if you’re interested in the subject. I have a brief synopsis above, but it’s obviously more complicated than what can be posted in a discussion board!

If it makes it to the Supreme Court, guess who controls that as well. Basically, kiss your views goodby.

It”s a good point but my suspicion is this issue will outlast the Trump presidency. The next president may be able to unwind it before it gets to the Supreme Court.

This bothers me. The rest of world is moving to solar, wind & other forms of renewable energy, yet here in US we are trying to dig up more coal & drill oil ?

You should defend your POV on the merits, not by saying, 'they're doing it so we should too.' Maybe solar and wind will be practical someday but not today. I'm more of an "all of the above" kind of guy.

Wind power is practical enough in Germany that they are producing so much wind power, that paying its people for using it.

Really? I'm surprised. Here, in the U.S., we have a lot of flat, open areas where you would think it would be more effective but it adds very little to the overall supply. Maybe the needs are much more modest in Germany!?

I live in Iowa, where we manufacture most of the country's wind turbines. We have one in a 50 mile radius of where I live. With all the open farm land thats around us, I am amazed we don't have more wind power here.

Oops! From your previous comment, I thought you lived in Germany. :-) There're a lot of them in northern Indiana (I drive along I-65, between Indianapolis and Chicago, every once in a while) but they rarely turn and usually pretty slow. I actually think they can be kinda photogenic but I guess they take out a few raptors occasionally. Again...not much electricity being generated.

66.5 percent of Utah is Federal land - think about that. How much of a State do you think the Federal Government should own and control? Bears Ears National Monument hasn't even been around for a year yet, and even though Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has been around since 1996, it's 1.9 million acres.

That is not even true. Why is it so hard for people to do objective research? It is so easy to find out the correct figure using google. I'm going to let you try again to see if you can do it and maybe in the future you can use this google skill you might develop to stop spreading misinformation. I'll also give you a hint, it is less than 50%.

Also in the case of Utah, our neighboring states pay the price with all of our pollution that blows into those states. Our government doesn't have a good track record regulating heavy industry and we have just about the nastiest air in North America. It is worse than Beijing on a lot of days. It is absolutely pathetic and has proven that Utah cannot even govern itself as our politicians are way too greedy to do that.

I actually believe Mike is closer to being right: The Congressional Research Service quotes the number at 63.1% (as of March, 2017). Page 8:

You may have been referring to the total federal land in the West, which was quoted by the NYTimes at 47%

The Antiquities Act has often been controversial with regard to accusations of Presidential over-reach. In fact such past controversy is the reason that the act now only applies to 49 states. People in Wyoming were outraged when FDR created the Jackson Hole MN. A flurry of legal challenges ensued and became a real headache when the government wanted to roll the land into what would become Grand Teton NP. Harry Truman and Congress ended the stand-off by exempting the whole state from the Antiquities Act and requiring Congressional approval for the creation of any future national monuments within the state's borders.

Interesting information Geoff, thanks for sharing it!

Fascinating. I was not aware of this. Thanks!

Thank you for sharing this, it means a lot to me. Some of my family is out there protesting it.

I wish I could be out there with them. I am there in spirit though!

You should go out and document it so you can write a follow-up article! :-)

I appreciate the post -- as the start of a real discussion. But I think folks also need to have some awareness of other points of view -- at least if we're going to come up with a balanced solution. The fact is that plenty of folks in Utah are angry about how much of their state is under Federal control. That's one reason why so many Utah senators and representatives have been pushing this initiative.

The extraction industries have been a major source of income for generations in Utah. And even in Moab, home base for tourists visiting Arches and Canyonlands, lots of long time residents want to have another source of income beside tourism. So when a president takes 2,000,000 acres out of the state's control -- and does it without any feedback from the state's leaders, there are going to be hard feelings.

At the same time, folks in the state are hugely proud of their parks. When you visit Bryce or Zion or Arches, you run into lots of locals. They know tourists don't want to see coal mines or drilling right next to these natural wonders.

I personally think Trump has gone about this the wrong way. But if Obama or Clinton can create a National Monument with no outside feedback, they're doing our democracy a disservice as well. The best thing at this point would be for folks on both side to do two things, 1. Define which areas within these newer monuments are of true interest for the American people as a whole (instead of just setting aside a hundred miles of real estate) and 2. Define how far from the sacred treasures, and under what conditions, the mining folks can operate.

Excellent comment Tim. Thank you for providing this other point of view.