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.
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.
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 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.