Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Leviathan in the Desert

...Are we overrunning the land in the name of saving it?

Never underestimate irony. In 1996, President Bill Clinton designated nearly two million acres in nearby Garfield County, Utah. During the last twenty years, vandalism has increased at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In 2015 alone 1,400 cases of rock defacement were documented. In comparison, twenty-five cases of vandalism were documented in the Bears Ears area between 2011 and 2016. Increased visitation has led to greater deterioration of archaeological and geological resources in Utah’s national parks.

The problem is one of scale. As ranchers, we understood the connection between scale and stewardship. The size of a herd, the use of a pasture, the distribution of water had to bend to the limits of the environment. But the sheer size of this monument complicates stewardship, for everyone. Instead of a land that is parceled among many groups of stewards, the area becomes a single space governed by a single entity. And what it lacks in manpower it will make up for in regulations.

Not even minimal improvements to the land, such as planting grass, clearing small areas of brush and trees, grading roads, or cleaning ponds and springs will be allowed. A monument designation will implement a new travel-management planning process to decide which roads and sites may be accessed. Native Americans will be able to gather wood, nuts and ceremonial herbs only from approved roads.

Though existing grazing and mineral rights will be preserved, the logic of regulation tends toward its own growth. Again, the experience of Garfield County is instructive. Since the designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, grazing has decreased by 31 percent, mineral extraction has been restricted, and the county recently had to declare an economic state of emergency. Regulated out of viability. Tourists come for a season, but residents are relocating for good.

If Bears Ears must be designated a national monument, then a more natural, manageable size for it would be a quarter of what is proposed. The real jewels of the area are the canyons and ruins of Grand Gulch and Cedar Mesa. If this were the extent of the proposal, more locals could stomach it. But the proposed boundaries violate all sense of proportion, swallowing two whole mountain ranges, huge swaths of rangeland, native land allotments, and watersheds of entire towns. The park service already has a deferred maintenance backlog of 12 million dollars. How can it manage still more?

In rural life there’s a human scale too. People work with people they know. Everyone has a family, a history, and, for better or worse, a reputation. Park rangers are cordial but largely unknown entities, rotating in and out. Relationships break and heal, hearts listen and learn, only when the social scope is small. A bigger land boss from Washington would disrupt this exchange by elevating itself as the arbiter. Rural folks see themselves as actors shaping the world around them, not spectators watching things happen.

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