I’ve been all over the United States in search of two things: live music and silence. The
music is typically by a rock band. The silence — that’s harder to come by.
I’ve found it most bountifully in and around Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a wild, unsettled region surrounded by better-traveled destinations like the Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. I’ve been visiting this part of the world semi-regularly for 15 years. It reliably recharges my spirit.
Southern Utah accounts for some of the most otherworldly landscapes on earth. To blast through this rock in search of coal and uranium seems like the sort of blundering, regrettable mistake we would have made in the bad old days, when the bounty of nature seemed infinite, before we figured out that humans have the capacity to destroy things that we’d assumed were permanent.
Yet that’s what President Trump wants to do.
Some presidential mistakes are only temporary, and can be remedied with time and effort. Trump’s move this week to slash about half of the territory of Grand Staircase, and 80 percent of the newly established Bears Ears National Monument nearby, is intended to pave the way for mistakes of the permanent sort.
The value of these places can’t be put on a spreadsheet. It’s hard even to talk about without waxing poetic. That’s why the protection granted by national monument status — existing commercial uses may continue, but no new development is allowed — is so important.
Every president since Theodore Roosevelt has created national monuments, which are similar to national parks, under the unilateral authority granted by the 1906 Antiquities Act. Trump is the first to try to erase them. The day after Trump’s announcement, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke made clear that additional national monuments will be on the chopping block.
There’s a complex relationship between the desire to protect these lands while making them open to the public. It involves compromises. There’s nothing divinely ordained about the exact boundaries of these monuments: I’m able to visit the area at all only because a couple of highways were once built nearby. My rental car contributes an incremental amount of pollution.
But turning mining interests and other developers loose on so much of this previously protected land will imperil the pristine status of the surviving portion while destroying undiscovered treasures of natural history in the process. And it sounds an ominous warning for other protected lands around the country.
Drive along Utah’s Highway 12, which dips into the northern part of Grand Staircase, and you’ll see vast landscapes of ashen gray that may as well be the surface of the moon. Take the only other paved road that slices into the monument’s territory, the Burr Trail, and you have the sense of traveling back to before any human footprints creased their outlines in the red clay. To gaze at the exposed rock formations around here is to read the palm of the earth. As the Burr Trail’s final, unpaved miles lead away from Grand Staircase, the landscape reveals rows of white cliffs that hide deep pinks and purples in their stony bosom.
This region is also littered with priceless evidence about its past inhabitants, from dinosaurs — two dozen new species have been discovered there in the last 20 years — to some of the first humans to live here. Bears Ears is filled with prehistoric sites and relics, more of which have yet to be discovered. This land is also of intense significance to nearby Native American peoples. Trump’s dismantling of Bears Ears represents just another broken promise to them.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was the last part of the continental United States to be fully mapped, and it feels like it. But therein lies the problem for locals. Though the tourism industry, fueled by sightseers like me as well as all manner of outdoor enthusiasts, is a boost to the local economy, jobs can be scarce.
The promise of a few mining jobs can be alluring. Mindful of this, President Obama left an existing uranium mine, whose owners are looking to expand, outside the boundaries of Bears Ears when he created it last year. But a large coal seam is buried in Grand Staircase.
I know that my perspective is that of a merely occasional tourist. But neighbor status does not confer a special right to despoil. It suggests a responsibility to protect.
Trump and his allies want to open up this public inheritance for private exploitation, and they’re just getting started. Some argue this land is better managed under state control, but make no mistake: The area of these national monuments was slashed to foster private development, not public protection.
These precious lands sit in silence, so we need to speak up on their behalf.
Jeremy D. Goodwin is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.