Bears Ears; A New Monument, An Old Argument, and A Changing American West
|Cattle grazing in the western Abajos.|
In late Summer 2017, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke slunk into his large raincoat and let his eyes settle beneath his large, black, ten-gallon Stetson before carefully offering a few choice words on his feelings towards the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.
“Cattle ranchers matter too.”
Zinke had just finished a three-day whirlwind tour of the new monument, readdressing many of the issues and visiting with many of the same people and agencies as did Sally Jewell, Interior Secretary under Obama, did in 2016, albeit under a very different tone. The trip was a result of Trump’s executive order to reevaluate National Monuments across the United States designated after 1996 that are at least 100,000 acres and made without ‘adequate public consultation.’1
When Trump visited Salt Lake City in December, his intentions were clear. After all of the hullabaloo and noise calmed down, we saw in increase in monuments (Bears Ears is now two smaller monuments), but an overall reduction of protections of about two million acres, reducing the size of both Bears Ears National Monument, and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
At 1.3 million acres, the monument was an aggressive move on the conservation front, and its temporal success was as surprising as it was bold. But as audacious as the move appeared to be, it was really the result of a decades old sentiment to preserve and protect one of the richest cultural and archaeological zones in the world, and only came to fruition after then President Barack Obama and his designation of the national monument. It’s worth noting as well that the initial proposal for the monument stood at a staggering 1.9 million acres, larger than some eastern states, and was reduced before Obama passed the order to set aside the monument. And Bears Ears wasn’t alone. During his tenure, Obama set aside or added acreage to 34 national monuments, significantly more than any president before him. While praised by conservationists and environmentalists, one could have almost predicted the backlash that was to come once the new administration took office with their sympathies towards anti-federalist, and anti-Obama ideals.
This public lands showdown could have found no better setting than the great Beehive State of Utah. The state has had a tumultuous history with not just public land use, but national monuments as well. It was not far from Bears Ears, just across the lake as it turns out, that in 1996 then President Bill Clinton gave a speech at the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and promised to designate the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument, declaring that “Seventy miles to the north of here in Utah lies some of the most remarkable land in the world.” The fact that he had never actually visited Escalante seemed trivial. The decision was every bit as controversial as today’s Bears Ears designation, as the 1.7 million acre monument prevented any new coal mining, or oil and natural gas drilling to take part within its borders. But its not just the coal and oil business that these monument designations irk. Its potash. Its uranium. Its big money, its resources and fuels, mining, timber. Real or imagined, to many people its money, its economy, jobs. But more than any of these, it is cattle that rustles the most feathers in these parts, its grazing, a way of life that has been threatened and is on the brink of extinction. It’s the great American cowboy, and his heavily subsided beasts trying to grind out a life in an inhospitable and unforgiving American desert.
On April 12, 2014, Cliven Bundy, a millionaire rancher from Nevada, supported by anti-federalist militias, participated in an armed stand off with local Bureau of Land Management rangers outside of his private ranch. The BLM rangers had rounded up many of Bundy’s cattle that were grazing illegally on public lands. At the time of the stand off, it was estimated that Bundy owed the BLM over a million dollars in unpaid taxes, dollars that were mostly owed through fines for previous attempts to remove Bundy’s cattle from these public lands, and Bundy’s refusal to do so. The stand off ended with the BLM backing down and relinquishing Bundy’s cattle (which Bundy apparently attributes to divine intervention), as they simply weren’t prepared to outshoot the alt-right militias, especially with the anti-federalist local sheriff running Bundy’s errands. The stand off was a prelude to the much more infamous takeover of public offices in Oregon, that he and his sons orchestrated in 2016.
These events, while garnishing recent national attention, are nothing new to the public land debate. Cattle ranchers have played a major role in the shaping and development of all western states, and have imbedded themselves into the culture, the government, and economies of every town in the west. In the 1930’s, the congress passed the Turner Grazing Act (TGA), which attempted to regulate the free grazings of public lands, and required ranchers to purchase grazing leases for the public lands that there private cattle grazed upon. What the act essentially did was to privatize the use and profits of the local landowners who were able to purchase the leases at a surprising low, and heavily subsidized rate. Throughout the decades, and under heavy influence from such lobbying powers as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, (read NRA for beef) the policies have been updated time and time again, with always a similar effect. Lower rates for the ranchers, and a higher, ever growing expense footed by the American taxpayer.
The cost to graze one animal and its calf per month on public lands is $1.87,2 compared to the national average on private lands of $20.10. When this rate is applied to the over 21,000 ranchers who graze their cattle on public lands, the subsidy becomes apparent. In 2014 the direct accountable costs of grazing programs to the BLM and USFS was $143.6 million, while the grazing fees collected were only $18.5 million.3 That’s a $125 million (about $25,000 per rancher) per year subsidy that is written off as a public service to these so called cowboy capitalists. The leases issued are good for ten years, so it would be appropriate to say that on average, every public land rancher in the US is handed a quarter million dollar welfare check, issued with every qualifying lease.
These figures only represent direct costs attributed but not limited to activities such as building and maintaining fences, corral maintenance and construction, installation of water tanks, building infrastructures to improve access to water for livestock, seeding to improve vegetation and forage, etc3 When all indirect costs are accounted for the numbers skyrocket. Indirect costs would include things like the USDA Wildlife Services for example, which “expends money to kill thousands of native carnivores each year that may threaten livestock; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which expends part of its budget for listing species as threatened or endangered resulting from harm by livestock grazing; and other federal land management agencies that expend money on wildfire suppression caused by invasive cheat grass that is facilitated by livestock grazing. Other examples are the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Management and Removal Program, which removes competitive foragers from public lands. Restoration projects, endangered species consultations and studies, invasive species removal, etc, etc., all of which is due to the damaging ecological effects of grazing cattle in sensitive areas.3
Numbers vary wildly when these indirect factors are included, but experts have estimated that the actual cost to taxpayers is somewhere in the $500 million-$1 billion per year.4 All to support an industry which provides less than 3% of domestically raised beef.5
However, theses monetary losses don’t get at potentially the greatest losses of all. The loss of wilderness, extinct species, endangered species, the alteration of an entire American west through destructive effects of grazing. These somewhat esoteric considerations may the greatest loss of all for the American public, and certainly cant be quantified with numbers and accounting. These considerations though make up what has become the greatest threat to private cattle ranchers, oil drillers, and uranium miners. It’s the outdoor industry, the wilderness lovers, the recreationalists. Those that see more value in the natural beauty in the landscape than the resources that can be extracted from it. Those that see more value in the climbing of a mountain, rather than the coal that can be found beneath it.
These two arguments have shaped the current public lands debate. In the case of Bears Ears there happens to be a third. Every National Monument that has been set aside has been done so with a purpose. A specific cause or reason to why that specific area deserves National Monument designation and protection. Bears Ears, although containing some of the most spectacular canyon country in North America and some of the greatest recreational opportunities in the southwest, is a national monument because of the concentrated cultural and archaeological sites found within its borders. It has been referred to as the first ‘native’ monument, and without the support of many tribe councils, including the massive Navajo Nation, the monument likely would have never happened. More than half of San Juan counties population (the county in which Blanding, Bluff and Monticello are found) is native, and interestingly, many view both the recreationalists and the industrialists with a similar disdain, as both seem to disrespect the land and misunderstand the landscape, albeit in their own, very different ways. Although their would appear to be three very different arguments and agendas that different groups have in the area, the argument often simply comes down to being either pro or anti monument, and for this reason, the recreationalists and the natives often, although at times uncomfortably, have seemed to form a semblance of an alliance focused on the end game; defending the monument.
The anti-monument bloc with regards to Bears Ears is similar to many other demographics across the rural western United States. Anti-federalist, well-to-do capitalist, Mormon, white. Interestingly they seem to cast aside the native’s entitlement to the land with their own. Many of these locals are descendants of the Hole-In-The-Rock parties who settled the area in the late 1800’s and founded the LDS communities that have turned into the small towns still there today. Many of these families are the wealthy cattle ranchers that have inherited ranches from their fathers, and have been grazing cattle on the millions of acres of public land for generations. This has predictably developed a sense of ownership and entitlement to these public lands. Many of these ranchers view the lands as theirs, and only there to feed their cattle, provide personal private recreation, and to support their outdated, unsustainable, heavily subsidized, and elaborate ‘cowboy’ lifestyle, which they believe is the backbone of the American west.
With all this it’s no surprise the local communities are threatened by the monument. To them the monument represents a threat to their lifestyle; public land, public infrastructure, taxpayer support, welfare, with private profit. A monument will undoubtedly bring more visitors and tourists to the area, looking to enjoy the natural wonder the region has to offer. The monument, although allowing all previous grazing leases and wood harvesting to continue, will prohibit any new oil drilling, potash or uranium mining, logging, or any other resource exploitation within its borders. In a way, the monument designation makes it more difficult for locals or large corporations to privately profit off a land that belongs to everybody. And although the new monument will continue to allow for current grazing leases to continue, the ranchers are not incorrect to feel threatened to lose these leases. One need to only look at the neighboring communities near Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSENM) for a lesson learned.
The grazing leases that allow ranchers to run their cattle on public lands must be renewed every ten years. The renewal process heavily favors prior ownership so it is relatively easy for ranchers to continue the lease as long as they deem fit. The leases are however, ‘up for sale.’ In the late 1990s, The Grand Canyon Trust began buying grazing permits from willing ranchers and removing cattle from hundreds of thousands of acres with little notice. After obtaining these leases, the Trust then attempted to ‘retire these leases, offering them back to the BLM for free. In 2001, the Trust spent over a million dollars on several permits covering several hundred thousand acres in GSENM after negotiating a retirement process with BLM officials.6 The retirement of these leases would essentially remove cattle from these areas permanently. Interestingly, the TGA dictates that owners of these leases must graze the lands, so the trust bought cattle, and eventually some ranches, and grazed the allotments with minimal impact. The Trust suddenly found itself in the cattle business. While the legality of these actions was often protested, the possibility of terminating cattle grazing in some areas does exist, if local lease holders are willing to sell them off.
All this of course goes against what not just the locals of San Juan county, but the state of Utah, and all anti-federalists nationwide want; the minimization of the federal government, and for all federal public lands to be given back to the states, and sold off to private enterprise if they deem fit. To them, Obama’s sweeping National Monument outreach represents exactly the dangers of a bureaucratic institution that has grown wildly out of control and has exceeded its reach into the lives of private citizens in small communities. The locals of San Juan County are in fact, some of the most outspoken antifederalist, good ol Mormon boys around. There philosophies seem to fall perfectly in sync with groups such as Cliven Bundy and his sons (also Mormon), and their extreme right wing, anti-Obama narrative, and it would seem there violent acts have bled over into Bears Ears. Just prior to Zinke’s visit in May, a BLM guard station, located near Sweet Alice Springs within the new monument burned to the ground. This was the third suspicious incident targeting Federal buildings in the new monument in the previous year, and few doubt the arsonist’s motives. With Bears Ears and San Juan county’s newly appointed position as the hotbed of public lands debates in our nation, its not unlikely that future incidents are forthcoming, and one could very easily imagine armed, right-wing militias arriving in droves, to fight for their Mormon cattle driving brothers-in-arms, against the evil that is barefootin’, treehuggin’, rock climbin’ commies trying to turn their nice little town into another Moab.
Another Moab? Although not likely, the area could use a little bump. San Juan County is the poorest county in Utah, with little to drive local economies. While grazing advocates press their importance to local economies, the reality is that they offer little to overall health of communities. The state of Utah, although having a higher percentage of public land ranchers than other states, still comes up surprisingly low when compared to other industries in the state, especially recreation and tourism. The numbers vary greatly depending on reports and what jobs are specifically attributed to being 'dependent' on federal land grazings, but the numbers are typically in the very low thousands. The numbers are so low in fact, that they are usually combined with the logging industry to potentially mask its insignificance. According to the Interior Department's 2016 Economic Contributions Report, cattle and logging contributed about 4,000 jobs and $2.37 million in value added.7 When compared to the outdoor recreation, the argument is as lopsided as you can get. In Utah, 110,000 jobs are directly associated to the outdoor industry with over $12 billion in consumer spending, 3.9 Billion in wages and salaries, and $737 million in state and local tax revenue. Federally, $59.2 Billion in tax revenue is raised.8 The Interior Department said the latest numbers available show that visitors spent more than $105 million in the Moab area, supporting 1,650 jobs.7 That’s more outdoor jobs in the town of Moab than there are probably cowpoke jobs on public lands in the entire state. More than twice as many direct jobs in Utah depend on outdoor recreation (110,000) as on mining (32,000) and energy (18,000) combined.8 Oh and you know those self pay stations you randomly come across (and most often ignore) on BLM lands asking you for a $2 (at least in Bears Ears) day use fee? Well as of 2004, those oft-neglected anger inducing metal bins, lonely, rusted, and inconspicuous, raised more money in recreation fees than annual grazing fees nationally.9
All these numbers and stats, leaves little doubt to the value of competing industries. The major problem (or blessing) is that Bears Ear, is not Moab. The landscape is not Moab, the culture is not Moab, and almost everyone on all sides of the argument agree that a Moabification of the area would probably be the worst thing for protecting the area. The locals of the area seem convinced that the monument was the first step towards this, and could be the first slidings of a slippery slope towards large scale tourism.
But reality would suggest otherwise. Once again, one only need to look to Escalante as an example. GSENM has had monument status for over 20 years. While the initial declaration of the monument undoubtedly caused a small spike in visitors, after a few years people lose interest, and Escalante returned in almost every way to its reclusive status. National Monuments ARE NOT NATIONAL PARKS, and giving an area that deserves to stay undeveloped, the protections it needs through National Monument status, is not a highway towards a National Park and the Disneyland over development circus that is our National Parks.
The state of Utah, with elected officials such as Governor Herbert, Senator Orrin Hatch, and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), have taken a strong stance against the outdoor industry, national monuments, and environmental and conservation groups. Their ideas goes beyond talking points and rhetoric, and are currently, actively trying to undermine the 1906 Antiquities Act, while also attempting to return all federal public lands within Utah to the authority of the state. Before the designation of Bears Ears as a National Monument, the state of Utah was actively working on a grand compromise to settle the public land debate. The Public Land Initiative was introduced and spearheaded by Rep. Bishop who has historically taken a very pro-Utah, pro-industry, anti-federalist, anti-monument stance. For months the deal appeared to be working, as all sides were actively engaging and appeared to be willing to make some compromises to get what they wanted.
The proposal was this. 4.4 million acres of federal land in the state would receive more protection via a confusing array of new and expanded wilderness areas, national conservation areas, wild and scenic river miles, a few 'special management areas,' and a 1.2 million acre conservation area at Bears Ears. On the flip side the proposal would free up 81,000 acres of designated Wilderness areas, gives 40,000 acres of federal land to the state, and gives Utah the right of way to tens of thousands of miles of dirt road that network throughout the public lands of Utah, which supports the one mode of recreation that the state appears to endorse, OHV-ing. While the proposal appears to be a major win for the conservationists, groups representing both the environment/recreation alliances and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Council were quick to back out. The deal, not surprisingly was filled with misleadings and hyperbole. For example many of the new wilderness areas are already in National Parks, so the bill actually would protect less land. With the potential for a National Monument growing, the groups switched all their attention away from the deal, and focused their energies on convincing Obama for National Monument designation. Obama eventually came through, and the initiative died.
But don't count ol Bobby Bishop out yet. Enter H.R. 3990, the 'National Monument Creation and Protection Act.' In the fall of 2017, Rep. Bishop shifted his attention away from local land debate, and decided to go big. He introduced his new bill to congress which goes right at the 1906 Antiquities Act and National Monuments. The bill, briefly, requires state and local approval for any monument over 10,000 acres, and can be no larger than 85,000 acres. All new monuments would require private landowners that bordered the national monument to agree to the designation, and only areas with 'objects of antiquity' such as relics, cultural artifacts and fossil can be considered. "The term ‘object or objects of antiquity’ does not include—(i) natural geographic features; and (ii) objects not made by humans, except fossils (other than fossil fuels) or human or animal skeletal remains.” Interestingly, the bill also grants the present POTUS to shrink pre-existing national monuments, a right that the anti-monument folk have long been arguing he already can.10
The bill is as audacious as it is extreme, and is an outright attack on our public lands. It seems good ol Bobby got fed up with the compromise route, and after no doubt feeling tossed aside post-monument designation, is going straight for the Bears Ears jugular. It remains to be seen how the bill will be treated. In any other political arena, the threat of passing would likely be minimal, but it is being presented at a time where such anti-federalist ideals aren’t so extreme sounding, and you can almost bet that if passed through congress, our Trump would not hesitate in its signing.
With so much uncertainty about Bears Ears and the future of our public lands in the air, it is easy to get caught up in the political fiasco and the rhetorical hyperbole of both sides. It remains to be seen how the monument designation will actually affect the area and the towns that surround the monument. If GSENM is any example, the answer would be not much. The cattle ranchers and uranium miners of San Juan county would love to paint a picture of big government's greedy arm, stealing lands, burning villages, raping and pillaging, and many people are easily sold by it. But the reality is that every acre of Bears Ears national monument was already federal land. All that has changed is the bureaucratic institution overseeing it.
On February 2nd, Trumps initiative will go into affect. In short, Trump rescinded the monument on all federal lands within the old boundaries that did not have wilderness designation. These are most of the lands that were designated Forest Service and BLM. He reduced GSENM dramatically and basically completely rescinded Bears Ears, while at the same time creating two new monuments. The Shash Jaa’ (native for ‘bears ears’) National Monument, which includes parts of Elk Ridge and Arch Canyons, and Indian Creek National Monument, the crack climbing mecca just outside of Canyonlands National Park.
Previous to Trump’s slashings, the monument stood at 1,351,849 acres. 1.06 million acres of BLM land and 289,000 acres of national forest were incorporated to form the boundaries of the monument. About 430,000 acres are wilderness areas or BLM wilderness study areas, which actually give more protection than a national monument status, so monument designation (or lack there of) won't affect these areas. The monument surrounded over 100,000 acres of state land and more than 12,000 acres of private land. These lands were never to be part of the monument and remained either state owned or privately owned. Previous resource exploitation
projects were and will be allowed to continue. Wood collecting will be allowed to continue. And yes, previous grazing leases are still being honored and you will still find cows all over National Monuments everywhere. For all serious parties concerned, The Bears Ears region was pretty much exactly how it was pre-monument.
What does change with national monument status is no new development. It is this fact that rustles the feathers of the states bigwigs and private resource developers. Its also a point brought up often by the outdoor industry, who would have every climber in the nation believe that if the monument was rescinded, Indian Creeks cliffs would be bulldozed and valleys filled with oil rigs. Patagonia, the Outdoor juggernaut, has spent millions on pro-monument advertising, including such dramatic slogans as ‘The President (Trump) Stole Your Land.’ This type of rhetorical exaggeration is just as false as implying that Obama’s designation of the monument was a federal land grab.
All of the land involved in these arguments, is and always has been, FEDERAL, PUBLIC land. Obama’s designation, and Trump’s rewritings are simply shuffling up the beuracratic institutions that oversee the land. It was never private, and it is still very much your federal public land.
Bears Ears has only been a monument for less than a year, and therefore has only had these protections for the last year. Just because an area can be drilled does not mean that it is profitable to do so. Industry has had the last century to exploit resources in these, and it hasn't happened, unless you call crushing sick splitters resource exploitation. While protection of these areas is no doubt important, its important to not get carried away with nightmarish visions of oil rigs, the upside-down, and the great earth mover GOLIATH.
The Bureau of Land Management and indeed all lands under management of the Interior Department is amidst a gradual changing of social climate and economic demands. The great American west is no longer demanding of big infrastructure, dams, and highways, and the public cattle grazing trade is antiquated, useless, and a drain on the American public. Outdoor recreation on the other hand is booming and is a major player in economies nationwide. The United States is without a doubt the leader in this worldwide economy, and this is no doubt a result of our public lands policies and the natural wonders that are protected within them. Whether its the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Logging and Mining, the Bureau of Leisure and Motorhomes, or the Bureau of Landmarks and Monuments, it is obvious that our public lands are and will continue to be multi-use, and with more than "400 national parks, 560 national wildlife refuges and nearly 250 million acres of other public lands managed by Interior"11 (That’s a lot of grass…) its an issue that will undoubtedly expand beyond Bears Ears, beyond the state of Utah, and certainly coming to a public land near you.
With that said, perhaps the most dangerous resource development that out public lands face is overdeveloped recreation and tourism. The Wilderness Act of 1964 was one of the great congressional acts involving public lands. The act seems to understand that developed recreation is as great of a threat to preservation as mining, logging, grazing, and other resource exploitations. It is with this in mind that my only recommendation for what to do from this point forward is to fight for more Wilderness. Activist and writer Wallace Stegner in his letter to congress pressing for the Wilderness Act filled his letter with many insights, and his letter is as important today as ever. I will simply leave this writing of mine with his, and I suggest you read it. All of it.
Los Altos, Calif.
December 3, 1960
David E. Pesonen
Wildland Research Center
Agricultural Experiment Station
243 Mulford Hall
University of California
Berkeley 4, Calif.
Dear Mr. Pesonen:
I believe that you are working on the wilderness portion of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission's report. If I may, I should like to urge some arguments for wilderness preservation that involve recreation, as it is ordinarily conceived, hardly at all. Hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain-climbing, camping, photography, and the enjoyment of natural scenery will all, surely, figure in your report. So will the wilderness as a genetic reserve, a scientific yardstick by which we may measure the world in its natural balance against the world in its man-made imbalance. What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself. Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical minded--but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them. I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people. It has no more to do with recreation than churches have to do with recreation, or than the strenuousness and optimism and expansiveness of what the historians call the "American Dream" have to do with recreation. Nevertheless, since it is only in this recreation survey that the values of wilderness are being compiled, I hope you will permit me to insert this idea between the leaves, as it were, of the recreation report. Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; If we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved--as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds--because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there--important, that is, simply as an idea.
We are a wild species, as Darwin pointed out. Nobody ever tamed or domesticated or scientifically bred us. But for at least three millennia we have been engaged in a cumulative and ambitious race to modify and gain control of our environment, and in the process we have come close to domesticating ourselves. Not many people are likely, any more, to look upon what we call "progress" as an unmixed blessing. Just as surely as it has brought us increased comfort and more material goods, it has brought us spiritual losses, and it threatens now to become the Frankenstein that will destroy us. One means of sanity is to retain a hold on the natural world, to remain, insofar as we can, good animals. Americans still have that chance, more than many peoples; for while we were demonstrating ourselves the most efficient and ruthless environment-busters in history, and slashing and burning and cutting our way through a wilderness continent, the wilderness was working on us. It remains in us as surely as Indian names remain on the land. If the abstract dream of human liberty and human dignity became, in America, something more than an abstract dream, mark it down at least partially to the fact that we were in subdued ways subdued by what we conquered. The Connecticut Yankee, sending likely candidates from King Arthur's unjust kingdom to his Man Factory for rehabilitation,was over optimistic, as he later admitted. These things cannot be forced, they have to grow. To make such a man, such a democrat, such a believer in human individual dignity, as Mark Twain himself, the frontier was necessary, Hannibal and the Mississippi and Virginia City, and reaching out from those the wilderness; the wilderness as opportunity and idea, the thing that has helped to make an American different from and, until we forget it in the roar of our industrial cities, more fortunate than other men. For an American, insofar as he is new and different at all, is a civilized man who has renewed himself in the wild. The American experience has been the confrontation by old peoples and cultures of a world as new as if it had just risen from the sea. That gave us our hope and our excitement, and the hope and excitement can be passed on to newer Americans, Americans who never saw any phase of the frontier. But only so long as we keep the remainder of our wild as a reserve and a promise--a sort of wilderness bank. As a novelist, I may perhaps be forgiven for taking literature as a reflection, indirect but profoundly true, of our national consciousness. And our literature, as perhaps you are aware, is sick, embittered, losing its mind, losing its faith. Our novelists are the declared enemies of their society. There has hardly been a serious or important novel in this century that did not repudiate in part or in whole American technological culture for its commercialism, its vulgarity, and the way in which it has dirtied a clean continent and a clean dream. I do not expect that the preservation of our remaining wilderness is going to cure this condition. But the mere example that we can as a nation apply some other criteria than commercial and exploitative considerations would be heartening to many Americans, novelists or otherwise. We need to demonstrate our acceptance of the natural world, including ourselves; we need the spiritual refreshment that being natural can produce. And one of the best places for us to get that is in the wilderness where the fun houses, the bulldozers, and the pavement of our civilization are shut out.
Sherwood Anderson, in a letter to Waldo Frank in the 1920s, said it better than I can. "Is it not likely that when the country was new and men were often alone in the fields and the forest they got a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost.... Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the American line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies.... I am old enough to remember tales that strengthen my belief in a deep semi-religious influence that was formerly at work among our people. The flavor of it hangs over the best work of Mark Twain.... I can remember old fellows in my home town speaking feelingly of an evening spent on the big empty plains. It had taken the shrillness out of them. They had learned the trick of quiet...."
We could learn it too, even yet; even our children and grandchildren could learn it. But only if we save, for just such absolutely non-recreational, impractical, and mystical uses as this, all the wild that still remains to us. It seems to me significant that the distinct downturn in our literature from hope to bitterness took place almost at the precise time when the frontier officially came to an end, in 1890, and when the American way of life had begun to turn strongly urban and industrial. The more urban it has become, and the more frantic with technological change, the sicker and more embittered our literature, and I believe our people, have become. For myself, I grew up on the empty plains of Saskatchewan and Montana and in the mountains of Utah, and I put a very high valuation on what those places gave me. And if I had not been able to periodically to renew myself in the mountains and deserts of western America I would be very nearly bughouse. Even when I can't get to the back country, the thought of the colored deserts of southern Utah, or the reassurance that there are still stretches of prairies where the world can be instantaneously perceived as disk and bowl, and where the little but intensely important human being is exposed to the five directions of the thirty-six winds, is a positive consolation. The idea alone can sustain me. But as the wilderness areas are progressively exploited or "improve", as the jeeps and bulldozers of uranium prospectors scar up the deserts and the roads are cut into the alpine timberlands, and as the remnants of the unspoiled and natural world are progressively eroded, every such loss is a little death in me. In us.
I am not moved by the argument that those wilderness areas which have already been exposed to grazing or mining are already deflowered, and so might as well be "harvested". For mining I cannot say much good except that its operations are generally short-lived. The extractable wealth is taken and the shafts, the tailings, and the ruins left, and in a dry country such as the American West the wounds men make in the earth do not quickly heal. Still, they are only wounds; they aren't absolutely mortal. Better a wounded wilderness than none at all. And as for grazing, if it is strictly controlled so that it does not destroy the ground cover, damage the ecology, or compete with the wildlife it is in itself nothing that need conflict with the wilderness feeling or the validity of the wilderness experience. I have known enough range cattle to recognize them as wild animals; and the people who herd them have, in the wilderness context, the dignity of rareness; they belong on the frontier, moreover, and have a look of rightness. The invasion they make on the virgin country is a sort of invasion that is as old as Neolithic man, and they can, in moderation, even emphasize a man's feeling of belonging to the natural world. Under surveillance, they can belong; under control, they need not deface or mar. I do not believe that in wilderness areas where grazing has never been permitted, it should be permitted; but I do not believe either that an otherwise untouched wilderness should be eliminated from the preservation plan because of limited existing uses such as grazing which are in consonance with the frontier condition and image.
Let me say something on the subject of the kinds of wilderness worth preserving. Most of those areas contemplated are in the national forests and in high mountain country. For all the usual recreational purposes, the alpine and the forest wildernesses are obviously the most important, both as genetic banks and as beauty spots. But for the spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the birth of awe, other kinds will serve every bit as well. Perhaps, because they are less friendly to life, more abstractly nonhuman, they will serve even better. On our Saskatchewan prairie, the nearest neighbor was four miles away, and at night we saw only two lights on all the dark rounding earth. The earth was full of animals--field mice, ground squirrels, weasels, ferrets, badgers, coyotes, burrowing owls, snakes. I knew them as my little brothers, as fellow creatures, and I have never been able to look upon animals in any other way since. The sky in that country came clear down to the ground on every side, and it was full of great weathers, and clouds, and winds, and hawks. I hope I learned something from looking a long way, from looking up, from being much alone. A prairie like that, one big enough to carry the eye clear to the sinking, rounding horizon, can be as lonely and grand and simple in its forms as the sea. It is as good a place as any for the wilderness experience to happen; the vanishing prairie is as worth preserving for the wilderness idea as the alpine forest. So are great reaches of our western deserts, scarred somewhat by prospectors but otherwise open, beautiful, waiting, close to whatever God you want to see in them. Just as a sample, let me suggest the Robbers' Roost country in Wayne County, Utah, near the Capitol Reef National Monument. In that desert climate the dozer and jeep tracks will not soon melt back into the earth, but the country has a way of making the scars insignificant. It is a lovely and terrible wilderness, such as wilderness as Christ and the prophets went out into; harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed, its great sky without a smudge of taint from Technocracy, and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs. Save a piece of country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. But those who haven't the strength or youth to go into it and live can simply sit and look. They can look two hundred miles, clear into Colorado: and looking down over the cliffs and canyons of the San Rafael Swell and the Robbers' Roost they can also look as deeply into themselves as anywhere I know. And if they can't even get to the places on the Aquarius Plateau where the present roads will carry them, they can simply contemplate the idea, take pleasure in the fact that such a timeless and uncontrolled part of earth is still there.
These are some of the things wilderness can do for us. That is the reason we need to put into effect, for its preservation, some other principle that the principles of exploitation or "usefulness" or even recreation. We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.
Very sincerely yours,
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10. Rep. Bishop, Rob [R-UT-1] H.R.3990 - National Monument Creation and Protection Act. [Introduced 10/06/2017]. https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/3990/text
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