Scrambling on the Sandstone at Grand Staircase
Jay and I wondered what the climb back out would be like as we made our way down a wide, smooth, but radically tilted carapace of sandstone toward Upper Calf Creek Falls. This was a “trail,” visible mostly as an imaginary line between rock cairns.
We had to brace ourselves against the steep pitch, mind the loose grit underfoot and take care not to be distracted: The domes and swales of bright vanilla rock, a faint scatter of distant pines and junipers, a dark weight of azure sky. The oceanic expanses of sandstone — known locally as “slickrock”— are common in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. For two decades, monument status has protected this mostly uninhabited high-desert region where ancestral Native American rock art and ruins are on view, backcountry hiking is accelerating in popularity, kayakers ply the Escalante River, rock climbers ascend towers and canyon walls, and the fossils of newly discovered species of dinosaurs are unearthed every few years.
The geology is durable, but national monuments may no longer be. President Donald Trump appeared in Salt Lake City on Monday to proclaim that he will cut this one to half its current size, opening the other half to mining, drilling, motorized recreation and various industrial uses. An adjacent national monument, the 2,000-square-mile Bears Ears, will shrink by 85 percent.
A long list of Republican and Democratic presidents have created national monuments under the authority of the century-old Antiquities Act. Grand Staircase-Escalante was declared by Bill Clinton in 1996, Bears Ears by Barack Obama in 2016. According to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, “There is no doubt that President Trump has the authority to review and consider recommendations to modify or add a monument.”
His opponents say no such authority exists. “We intend to sue the president immediately in federal court over these unlawful acts” Steve Bloch, legal director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said, just as the president arrived. S.U.W.A. will join several plaintiffs that include the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society, Earthjustice and other groups, he said.
“The Antiquities Act does not provide authority to revoke or modify national monuments once they’ve been created,” Mr. Bloch said, adding that “we’ll be in a position to move very quickly to have those actions declared unlawful.”
One section of Grand Staircase-Escalante is a high step on this “grand staircase” of escalating cliff walls and terraces that begins at the Grand Canyon, about 100 miles south of here, each exposed stratum higher and geologically younger than the last. Redrawing the monument’s boundaries will open some of the massive coal deposits on the Kaiparowits Plateau, south of where we’re hiking, to mining.
In scale as well as beauty, Grand Staircase-Escalante is more than a little overwhelming. As of last month, it was the largest of the land-based national monuments, a 2,900-square-mile rough polygon, about the size of Delaware. On paved roads, it took two hours to drive from one corner of the monument to the other, but they are very few. Some of the dirt roads are well maintained, but navigating most of the monument requires high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Those dirt roads are always remote, and often forbidding. Flash floods are common. Cellphone service is restricted to about 10 percent of the monument. In high season, Bureau of Land Management ranger patrols have to pull one stranded car a day out of trouble and they have to mount one full-scale search-and-rescue effort a week, on average.
Visitor services like those are “chronically underfunded and therefore understaffed,” I was told by Kevin Miller, a B.L.M. ecologist who has worked at the monument. Though the number of visitors to the monument is climbing, budgets are declining further, he said. A stop at one of the visitor centers for guidance on road conditions is essential.
This was the last area of the continental United States to be mapped, Mr. Miller told me. Trailheads may be signed, but the trails themselves usually aren’t. They are not maintained, and often they aren’t on maps, either. “The visitor experience is intentionally different from what people expect at a national park,” he said. “The Grand Staircase is really a wild place. It’s easy to get in trouble, if you’re not prepared.”
We stayed out of trouble during our visit, though the climb back up this route generated plenty of sweat. I was here to hike with my college-age great-nephew on a trip through southern Utah. A day exploring the flanks and waterfalls of this gorge, and the trailless crags above them, was a fine introduction. The extreme temperatures of winter and summer keep many visitors — estimated at more than 870,000 a year — away, but spring and fall weather are usually welcoming.
Later, I inquired at the office of Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, who had urged Mr. Trump to rescind or cut back the monuments. “To this day, the Grand Staircase proclamation remains among the most flagrant abuses of presidential power I have ever seen,” he responded. It is “suffocating economic development and uprooting the lives of thousands of Utahns who relied on the region’s resources for their very survival.”
The senator’s analysis puzzles Suzanne Catlett. She is president of the Escalante-Boulder Chamber of Commerce, and the owner of a local restaurant, Nemo’s Drive-Thru. The economies of those two hamlets — the gateways to the monument — have been prospering on the tourism they draw, she said.
Before its creation, Escalante was a sleepy ranch supply center with a failing sawmill. The growing number of visitors now supports businesses that provide food and lodging, guide and expedition services, camping supplies and an annual art festival. Fifty-one of the Chamber’s 52 members have declared their opposition to any changes in the monument’s boundaries, she told me.
“For an administration that’s supposed to care about business and economics, this does not make sense,” she said. She said she worries that if the Trump plans succeed, industrialization of the landscape will undermine tourism. And, she said, “It opens up the ability to mess with the monuments every four years, or based on a political environment, and that is no way to build an economy.”
The next day we headed southeast from the town of Escalante; with a population of 800, it’s the largest on the monument. A turnoff along a few miles of sandy, hummocky road brought us to a hike along Harris Wash. Maps indicate that its lower reaches are among those sections erased when half of the national monument disappeared this week.
The wash follows a canyon whose walls of striped pink sandstone become higher and narrower as you trek. They have been carved into soap-smooth, undulant contours by eons of grinding floodwater. Byways called slot canyons beckon to the casual explorer. Some narrow down to mere cracks, which you can try to squeeze through at your hazard.
The first couple of miles of the hike were remarkable, too, for the pungent, pervasive odor of cattle dung. Grazing is allowed on many national monuments and other public lands, even in officially designated wilderness areas. The number varies, but officials estimate that there are about 6,000 private cattle on leased allotments through most of Grand Staircase — Escalante.
The cows have been kept away from some streams on the monument, where they naturally congregate in this arid environment. But they are still allowed at Harris Wash, despite damage to stream banks, fouled waters, depleted natural vegetation, competition with wildlife and this canyon’s popularity as a hiking destination.
Jay and I were reminded, on this last day of our visit, that the continued presence of cattle here is part of the longstanding national contention over public lands management. And that for travelers to national parks, forests and monuments, the natural landscape has quickly merged with the political one.
Katahdin in Maine Is Rustic, Remote and Drawing Visitors
For a quiet expanse of deep woods, the Katahdin Wood and Waters National Monument generated a lot of controversy in its first year, as it was swept into a politically charged review of monuments by the Trump Administration. But on the mossy ground in northern Maine, the review has had little impact.
President Obama established the monument in August 2016, with 87,500 acres of land donated by Roxanne Quimby, who founded Burt’s Bees. Abutting Baxter State Park, the monument became the state’s largest parcel of federal land, nearly twice the size of Acadia National Park. Tourists began visiting to see the brawling East Branch of the Penobscot River, remote trout pond and moose-rich bogs.
Then, in April, President Trump ordered a review of all large monuments created since 1996. As part of the review, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited the Maine monument in June.
Mr. Zinke’s final report to the president, released this week, included vague language about prioritizing public access and increasing logging in the monument. It did not suggest reducing the size of the monument.
Jamie Brundrett, the president of the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, is looking forward to some resolution. “Everyone here in the Katahdin region is ready to put the issue to bed,” he said. “We want everything finalized one way or the other.”
Mr. Brundrett also owns a general store in Millinocket. “From wearing both hats, all spring, summer, and into the fall, business has been up, and there have been more cars on Main Street, so I definitely think the park is helping to drive tourism here,” he said.
A National Park Service spokeswoman, Elizabeth Rogers, said that things have been busy in the nascent monument.
More than 8,000 vehicles drove onto the monument between May and November, and over 5,000 people stopped at welcome centers in Millinocket and Patten. Ms. Rogers said staffers have been improving the signs on the loop road and elsewhere.
She said that most visitors are driving the loop road, and many are also hiking Barnard Mountain (where a couple recently saw a black bear sow and three cubs). She said the monument still has just one drive-in campground, at Sandbank Stream, and several hike-in campsites, all of which are first-come, first-served. Two hike-in huts — Haskell Hut and Big Spring Brook Hut — have bunk space that can be reserved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
In winter, the monument is open for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and fat-tire biking. The loop road is closed for the season, and the best winter approach is from the monument’s north entrance, where there is a plowed parking lot. There are also more than 30 miles of snowmobile trails elsewhere in the monument.
Lucas St. Clair, Roxanne Quimby’s son, and the executive director of the family nonprofit Elliotsville Plantation, said he has been pleased to see the monument’s popularity. “It’s been a huge increase in visitation,” he said.
Mr. St. Clair said some first-time visitors are surprised by the rugged conditions.
“I do emphasize the fact that this is a relatively remote and rustic experience,” he said. “The loop road is rough, and you have to be prepared for driving a couple of hours on a dirt road. It’s not like the loop road in Acadia.”
New this year is an interpretive map of the loop road, published by Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters. It is available at the welcome centers in Millinocket and Patten, which are open from Memorial Day to early October. The map can also be viewed on the Discover Katahdin app, developed by the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce.
Michael Downing, of Mt. Chase Lodge in Patten, said the review created one hurdle that makes it hard to find the monument. In May, Maine Governor Paul LePage, an outspoken opponent of the monument, directed the state Department of Transportation to not post any road signs for the monument, pending the outcome of the monument review.
Still, Mr. Downing said, tourists are finding it. “We’ve had people from all over the country,” he said, “coming specifically just to see the monument.”
Lilies and Loggers at Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon
Two years ago, armed ranchers and their supporters occupied Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for 41 days in a stand against federal control of public lands. Now, 300 miles to the west, another remote corner of the state is at the heart of the debate over conservation versus natural resource development.
The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, established by Bill Clinton in 2000, and doubled in size at the end of Barack Obama’s second term last January, is the first monument set aside solely to preserve biodiversity. Its 170,000 acres comprise grassland, forests, rivers, meadows, canyons and snow-capped peaks at the crossroads of three mountain ranges — at least, for now.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke identified the Cascade-Siskiyou as one of 10 monuments to shrink or modify. An Interior Department report says its boundaries should be made smaller to allow more timber harvest and cattle grazing. At the moment, its fate is uncertain.
This vast stretch of mostly undeveloped land, which straddles the Oregon-California border, also straddles a cultural divide within its region. The nearest sizable town, Ashland, was once the center of a robust timber economy, and has now become a mecca for theater enthusiasts and winter sports fans.
To most of the area’s human residents, reducing a boundary that was just expanded in January might seem an invisible realignment. It takes 20 minutes to drive from border to border across Green Springs Highway, which cuts like a belt through the narrow midsection of the monument. The handful of logging roads that offer the only other motorized access require four-wheel drive vehicles in the summer, and clog with snow for months each winter.
Green Springs Highway speeds visitors past pullouts for the Pacific Crest Trail and smaller hiking paths, through a remote community contained within the monument, and through forests that remain popular with local hunters even after the monument’s designation. Dueling “NO SISKIYOU MONUMENT” and “YES MONUMENT!” signs posted at restaurants and rental cabins highlight the depth of the local divide.
Pull over for a closer look, and the changing seasons offer a hint at the diverse plant and animal life the monument seeks to protect. Two endangered lilies — Green’s mariposa and Gentner’s fritillary — bloom purple and red each spring. More than a hundred butterfly and moth species flit and dance among the conifers in summer. A genetically distinct strain of redband trout overwinter in the monument’s lakes and ponds when the days grow short.
The Bureau of Land Management’s efforts to preserve the ecological diversity of what Mr. Clinton called a “biological crossroads” do not forestall all human activities here. The Bureau’s last review of the monument’s resources, completed in 2008, noted that more than 46,000 acres had been set aside for grazing — and that over the course of a decade, ranchers had used only 58 percent of available public lands within its borders, on average, each year.
Logging has been more heavily restricted, as Bureau officials seek to bring back canopies that were thinned over many decades and to maintain old-growth trees.
When the monument was expanded, the region’s timber industry immediately raised alarms, with one local company, Murphy Co., filing federal suit and arguing the designation is hurting its bottom line.
John Murphy, the president of Murphy Co., told local media that the monument expansion forced his company to withdraw logging plans that would have brought in millions of dollars in revenue — and generated $500,000 in taxes for Oregon’s Jackson County.
Meanwhile, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association maintains that grazing is more restricted than Bureau data would indicate — with preservation requirements so strict that ranchers would rather look elsewhere than use all the land available within the monument.
These arguments pull at the heartstrings of many native Oregonians, even as natural resources play an ever smaller part in the region’s economy. Fewer than 500 Jackson County residents still work in logging today, out of a local labor force of more than 100,000. Timber once employed 80,000 people statewide, but that’s fallen to 5,300 jobs as wood harvests have moved abroad, the sector has grown more efficient and environmental restrictions have limited logging both inside and outside the monument.
Today, far more people in the shadow of the Cascade-Siskiyou work at ski resorts, outdoor retailers, hotels and restaurants. Ashland draws theater fans from around the world to its renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“Tourism jobs are not family wage jobs,” Tom Mallams, the Klamath County Commissioner, said during a recent Oregon Public Broadcasting radio program on the monument.
“Timber jobs are family-wage jobs,” he continued, in an argument that would appear to pit one endangered species, the logger, against countless others in the expanded Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.