An Open Letter to Secretary Zinke on Bears Ears National Monument

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World class crack climbing (All rights reserved)

This Friday, May 26, 2017, is the deadline for public comments to Secretary Ryan Zinke about the Trump Administration’s notice in the Federal Register on reviewing Bears Ears National Monument. I genuinely believe that the current size and boundaries are at severe risk of being significantly reduced, if it isn’t rescinded (read eliminated) altogether, and the boots-on-the-ground lobbyists I know are saying that the quantity and quality of input during this comment period, for Bears Ears through Friday and all other National Monuments through July 10, 2017, could turn the tide. 

I submitted my personal comments about Bears Ears earlier today in an open letter. This letter is far from my best work, but I wanted to share this today in hopes you might submit your own and add to the volume of comments in support of Bears Ears and public lands in general.

 

May 22, 2017

 

The Honorable Ryan Zinke

Secretary

Department of the Interior

1849 C Street, N.W.

Washington, DC 20240

 

Dear Secretary Zinke:

Thank you for your recent visit to Southern Utah and the opportunity for me to provide input on your notice published in the Federal Register on May 11, 2017 regarding the “Review of Certain National Monuments Established Since 1996.” I will focus my comments on Bears Ears National Monument (BENM). I understand that you can’t possibly read every letter personally, but I hope this one is selected to be a sample for you to review.

I have spent nearly 20 years working in real estate and public policy and have always been passionate about conservation, climbing, and hiking. However, my interest in Southern Utah has swung dramatically from adamant disinterest to a kindling passion. I had long thought of the deserts of the southwest as useless land and perhaps only suitable for providing resources to support the needs of construction and other materials in towns and cities. I also thought it was less useful than the forests, like those in my native home of Upstate New York. However, a business trip brought me to the American southwest and changed my whole perspective. I took in the space, the breeze, the solitude, and the colors and realized this land wasn’t a blank on the map but someplace special. My eyes were opened, and shortly afterwards Utah in particular took on new interest; I learned that the land of Southern Utah was more ecologically diverse than the even the Adirondack Mountains where I loved to hike and climb; in fact, it was more diverse than all of Yellowstone National Park. And the history of the people was richer, and deeper than even the Iroquois. While the Iroquois largely avoided entering the Adirondacks, the area around southeastern Utah, was in and of itself, was not a destination, rather an important place. I suspect that your visit to Southern Utah had a powerful and transforming effect on you.

As you know, perhaps better than me, the Antiquities Act of 1906 was created in order to protect objects of historic and scientific interest. Since the law’s enactment, presidents have named well-over 100 National Monuments, some of which have gone on to be National Parks. I believe that the 1.3 million-acres of BENM is quite worthy of its designation for various reasons. The region around BENM holds a significant quantity of preserved and intact Native American structures and artifacts. In addition, BENM is one of the most admired outdoor recreation destinations in the U.S. Its landscape has a deep impact on those who spend time there rock climbing, mountain biking, paddling, hiking, hunting, fishing, and canyoneering. In fact, the rock climbing is truly world-class and annually attracts tens of thousands of visitors from around the world to climb at Indian Creek, Valley of the Gods, and many other walls throughout the monument.

A friend and well-known economist at a real estate finance trade association once discussed with me why communities choose affordable housing versus developing a shopping and business center, and the lesson applies to all kinds of land use. He said that land ought to always be used for its highest economic value; in the Midwest that mostly means using it for farming; on the other hand, in Manhattan, this means using land for mixed-use high rises. Except in Manhattan, there is the anomaly Central Park. He went on to explain that communities must decide what else is a worthy use, and thereby valuable purpose. This applies to affordable housing, farmland, and even how the land is zoned, managed, and controlled, as is the case with National Monuments; in the case of BENM, there is no replacing it.

The region in and around BENM holds 100,000 archaeological sites of preserved and intact Native American structures and artifacts. Unfortunately, these artifacts have been not been treated with due respect, and the protections that come with the designation of a National Monument comes too late as local Utahans, including local officials, have looted the sites. At the same time, local officials complain of perceiving a dominant federal government control. In fact, in 2014 San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman lead an ATV ride up Recapture Canyon, where off-roading was not permitted because of the antiquities throughout the region. (This region in particular, unfortunately, was not included in the final BENM proclamation.) He was jailed for his violation in 2015, yet was “honored” for his actions by being nominated “Commissioner of the Year.” For such abuses, and in the interest of reassuring public appreciation for the area’s cultural and historical roots alone, appears to be what the authority under the Antiquities Act was created to protect.

In addition, the vertical landscape itself is unique, and climbers like me want to ensure it’s protected for all of the reasons and mentioned as well as this: In his special-jury mentioned book at the 2001 Banff Mountain Book Festival, American Rock: Region, Rock, and Culture in American Climbing, Adirondack climbing guide and author Don Mellor wrote, “If there ever comes a time when all the routes are done, all the climbing areas on earth explored, climbed, and documented, Indian Creek [in BENM] will probably still top the list as crack-climbing Mecca to the world… Few places on earth have such parallel-sided, featureless cracks.” It’s also no wonder that in the declaration for BENM that rock climbing was specifically enumerated as a permitted recreational activity. I urge you to please preserve rock climbing as a permissible activity as well.

I believe BENM must never be shrunk nor repealed. In fact, BENM does not adequately cover the additional historical sites and recreational areas of Utah covering nearly 600,000 more acres. It is a remarkable wilderness landscape. Beyond the monument’s namesake twin buttes are world-renowned wilderness treasures like White Canyon, Indian Creek, and Comb Ridge. Myriad plant and animal species thrive in its varied habitats. And you’d be hard pressed to find the solitude provided by these areas elsewhere else in the lower 48.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Sincerely,

Andrew Szalay

CC: Senator Mark Warner, Senator Tim Kaine, and Rep. Don Beyer

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Inside the Real Fight Over Bears Ears

Straight lines. (All rights reserved)

Once, only vertical columns of ice and knife-edge alpine ridges enraptured me. Then a brief visit to the American southwest started to change that. Soon after, photos of the crack climbs around Indian Creek grabbed my attention.

It has also been impossible for me to ignore the pleas for us to write President Obama to create a new national monument around the Cedar Mesa Plateau, roughly where Indian Creek is tucked away: Bears Ears National Monument. This proposal comes from an Inter-Tribal Coalition in Utah, and conservationists from across the U.S., including the Sierra Club, Access Fund and the American Alpine Club, among many others, have supported. I recently sent my own note to the President and I joined another organization, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, to support the ongoing advocacy efforts. Here’s why:

Game of Tug-of-War

The future of climbing in Indian Creek is now in the midst of a political game of tug-of-war. U.S. Representative Rob Bishop of Utah is proposing a bill that, among other things, would preclude any executive order by a president to name any further national monuments in Utah. He points out that the whole Utah Congressional delegation opposes the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s proposal.

That last point is important, because, as I know from my days as a Congressional aide, the President is well aware that he should not take action affecting a particular state without support from the state’s elected representatives. If Obama uses his executive authority and designates Bears Ears National Monument without due process, without input broader than the Congressional delegation, then Obama’s actions could be contested, overridden, and ridiculed as poor governing.

Bishop has cleverly complicated efforts by introducing legislation that involves how federal public land in Utah would be managed in the future. (An updated version of his “Utah Public Lands Initiative” bill comes out today.) So long as this proposal is under discussion, the President has to tread extra-carefully; Congress has the power of oversight, spending, and authorizing. And most of Congress is staying on the sidelines, for the most part, in order to leave Utah’s delegation to have its say about its home turf. In addition to prohibit designating a new national monument, the bill alleges to “balance” industrial development and conservation efforts, but in reality it conserves new land in Northern Utah, not the canyon county in the south of the Cedar Mesa Plateau.

Key Moment

This is why a meeting on Saturday, July 16th at 1:00 p.m. PT in Bluff, Utah is so important. The Obama administration has called a public meeting to hear input from the region on whether there is sufficient public support for Bears Ears National Monument. It’s a critical test, if not just more input, for whether Obama can and should use his executive authority. Or is there enough input to render the Bishop PLI bill dead in committee (a harder thing to do.)

As a lobbyist with a large national nonprofit, I recently attended a similar public meeting, on a different subject (payday lending), in Kansas City in June. But the reasons for the meeting were similar. It was about the Obama administration wanting to take action it felt was shared popularly by the public, but opposed by Members of Congress. The meeting documented the statements from ordinary people and people with a direct stake on the topic on both sides of the issue. The forum also generated press, which made people speak up and take sides. It was a critical moment to drive and expose public interest and support for where it genuinely lies.

From my perspective in DC, this is the highest profile public lands fight right now. And it has ramifications for other proposals, like turning back larger swaths of federal public land in multiple states back to state government control that could turn it over to industry for resource extraction, rather than the recreational and conservation purposes Americans from coast-to-coast rely on.

There will be more key moments in the effort to make Bears Ears National Monument, but this is the time to either show up and speak in Bluff (RSVP here), even if just to say you support the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s proposal, or write to President Obama by clicking here. And join the Access Fund, American Alpine Club, and/or Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, because the work won’t end here.

Speak up for Indian Creek, Bears Ears National Monument, and conservation, because there is more at stake than just Bears Ears.

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Why We May Climb on Public Land is You

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The Creek. (All rights reserved)

The Bundy standoff in Burns, Oregon has lasted more than 40 days and the latest news says it may be coming to coming to a conclusion. It’s raised a lot of chatter about who controls the use of public lands. In fact, it’s inspired at least one of us: Over Facebook, Andrew Bisharat suggested learning from the Bundy clan’s effort and leading a crusade to take over the fish hatchery (which is actually on private land) so that we can climb the lower half of Rifle, CO, where it is currently prohibited. He was a joking.

At least I think he was joking.

There’s a lot of anger about government’s role today. It’s fueling the Bundy family and many like-minded ranchers. The anger, though over various topics, prompts many Presidential primary candidates’ supporters. Generally, the current system and values expressed by our laws and put into practice doesn’t work in their favor and they are frustrated.

When it comes to public lands, climbers are on the winning side these days. We can easily take for granted that we are allowed to climb most everywhere. Official land management plans allow for climbing in the most desirable locations. Bolting is permitted in the backcountry in some areas, within some guidelines. And, among climbers, most of us self-enforce good neighbor-policies through following Leave No Trace principals.

But there some real threats to that system. The balance could shift. And it might not be in your favor any longer.

Freedom to Climb at Risk

The freedom of climbing — whether that freedom is about movement over rock and hills or overcoming the idea that something seems impossible to climb — is about a specific approach freedom.

That application of freedom comes from how society values that kind of freedom. Most of us don’t think about it much, but we can climb in the Adirondacks, Yosemite, Red Rocks and everywhere in between because we’re allowed to. Every park has a management plan and that covers permissible and impermissible activities, from where you can make fires to fishing access, are covered and revised periodically.

However, who is making those land management plans would change if the public lands they address were owned by someone else, like the state or local governments. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives have bills to relinquish millions of acres of federally managed and protected land to states and local interests.

These are ongoing issues. And there have been ongoing issues like these that come and go onto our radar in climbing magazines and on social media. But these are real discussions that could shift who gets to graze their cattle where, how the ore beds are extracted, and where you can and cannot climb.

Speak Up

There are excellent advocates at the American Alpine Club and the Access Fund working to influence the outcome of discussions about the future of climbing in America. But they are empowered by you. Think about some other strong advocacy organizations:

  • NRA — It has a large membership that speaks up whenever their rights and freedoms feel threatened. And they contribute great deals of money.
  • AARP — This may be the largest national organization in size, and they are vocal on only two issues (Social Security and Medicare) for the most part, but it ensures the issues are protected and even considered sacred.
  • AIPAC — This group represents a small population of Americans, but it has an impressive infrastructure to mobilize advocates in nearly every Congressional district in the country with a reasonable amount of discipline.

All three of these examples have two things in common: They have dedicated members and they write and call their Members of Congress and other policymakers when summoned to do so.

So here is what you need to do:

  1. Join the AAC and the Access Fund, if you haven’t already. They are our watch dogs and our radar screen for threats to our way of life. And,
  2. Sign this petition from Protect Our Public Land, supported by the Outdoors Alliance, to go on the record that you support the protection of our public lands.

I believe compromise is always possible. While the lower-half of Rifle might be out of bounds, I think we can secure climbing and better land management for everyone. Hopefully will will do it without sacrificing what we hold dear and how we want to use the land.

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