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.

Grand Staircase-Escalante Proposed Revised Boundaries

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.

The Moon

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.

Heading Towards Hole-In-The-Rock

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.

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63 Comments

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

Steve Cullen's picture

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.

carpo cumulus's picture

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.

Steve Cullen's picture

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

Anonymous's picture

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.

Anonymous's picture

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. ;-)

Anonymous's picture

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. :-)

I'm all for protecting the environment but the ability of presidents to be able to designate National Monuments on their own needs to be abolished. That is way too much power in the hands of one person. It isn't constitutional either.

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.

So? That doesn't mean it isn't unconstitutional and an obvious abuse of power. The same goes for cops all across America stealing people's cash and property as a result of a traffic stop.

As for the protocol on how nukes are launched, that has zero relevance on those things being true.

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.

No court, including the Supreme Court, is immune from ruling wrongly and unconstitutionaly. No Court is above the constitution.

Anonymous's picture

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.

"the Supreme Court cannot rule “unconstitutionally” as you put it."

Of course it can. Not even a judge or a court is above the law.

Anonymous's picture

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!

"So in the first half of the 20th century, racial seggreation was constitutional, even if it wasn’t."

No, it was never constitutional. Because someone, or some people, determine that something is
true doesn't mean it really is. What the country is willing to tolerate is what you are really talking about.

Another example of something *obviously* unconstitutional is states enacting laws regulating gun ownership. Unfortunately Americans have also tolerated that.

Anonymous's picture

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.

Anonymous's picture

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.

I don't need to reread your posts; I know exactly what you are saying. As I said, I'm not interested in what the people are willing to tolerate under the legal process you address; I'm interested in respecting and observing the law as it is obviously written.

In this context I'm not too concerned with the things that are difficult to interpret. I'm much more concerned with obvious wrongs that don't require any interpretation by any reasonably intelligent and sane person.

One of the biggest myths going is that the constitution is always up for interpretation. The fact is, most of it isn't. One of the best examples of that is the 2nd ammendement. At best only the stupid and the insane think that it is, and at worst only evil people do.

My focus is on the truth, where as your focus is on some people's interpretation of the truth. That's all.

Anonymous's picture

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

That's a bizarre reply for acknowledging what you have been saying and after you previously acknowledged what I was saying.

Anonymous's picture

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
very
fruitful. But in needing to address your recent statement, I see nothing constructive coming further from this particular
thread.

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

No, I said those things about the most obvious things in our constitution. Read again what I wrote.
Last reply as
The reply box is almost gone,

Anonymous's picture

I understand what you said.
Goodbye, skinny box!

Then you shouldn't be misrepresenting what I said.

Anonymous's picture

I didn't

Yes, you did, by ignoring the distinction I made.

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