Donald Trump's plan to wreck America's desert wonderland
Back in 1996, President Clinton created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah — at over 1,880,461 acres, larger than the state of Delaware, it was the largest monument in the continental United States at the time. But that status didn't last. In 2017, President Trump slashed its size by almost half, lopping off huge chunks from the sides and isolating the Escalante portion from the rest.
Now, the Trump administration has released a management plan for the eviscerated monument, despite the fact that lawsuits challenging its size reduction are still ongoing. The plan is unsurprisingly tilted towards ranching and extractive industries like mining and drilling. Just as with Trump's plan to keep coal-fired power plants in business, it's a sort of ersatz Brown New Deal, using government dollars to subsidize filthy, inefficient industry while shutting down future economic possibilities that would preserve the region's natural heritage.
Let me start with just what kind of place we're talking about. Few know it very well due to its extreme remoteness — but I do, as I spent half my childhood living in a tiny town in southern Utah, and I've spent a great deal of time in and around the Grand Staircase-Escalante region.
The "staircase" (which is only about half-covered by the monument) refers to a series of gigantic, spectacular rock bands that mark different geological layers that appear as one travels from the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona to the Aquarius Plateau in south-central Utah: Over about 100 miles, the Chocolate Cliffs, the Vermillion Cliffs, the White Cliffs, the Grey Cliffs, and finally the Pink Cliffs at the famous Bryce Canyon National Park appear on the journey north.
East of the Grand Staircase is the Kaiparowitz Plateau, a vast uplifted plain that drains into the Colorado River to the south — and has some of the finest beds of fossils in the world, especially for the late Cretaceous period. Further still to the east is the Escalante, a small river that has carved an exquisite complex of delicate, narrow canyons and wild rock formations out of the underlying sandstone. (I would put Coyote Gulch up against any Gothic cathedral you care to name.)
This region is also some of the most hostile country in the world. Its high elevation and little precipitation combine to make it brutally hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The land has been profoundly warped and broken by geologic action that thrust it most of a mile into the sky, and then deeply carved by various creeks and rivers — making much of it a labyrinth of canyons and isolating it from nearby regions. To the south it is blocked off by the vast gulf of Colorado River canyons, to the east by the Waterpocket Fold, to the north by the Aquarius Plateau and Henry Mountains, and to the west by the Kolob and Markagunt Plateaus. (Indeed, this was the last area to be mapped in the entire continental U.S.)
Before modern industry and communications, practically the whole of Utah was a forbidding death trap, at least for Europeans. The Escalante itself is named after a Spanish Franciscan priest, Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, who attempted to cross from Santa Fe to the Catholic missions in California in 1776 with his superior, Atanasio Domínguez. They ended up traveling in an enormous circle, attempting to find some way through the merciless Utah landscape, only to give up and turn back after they nearly died several times and ran out of supplies.
Part of why the American Southwest is so strange and beautiful is that the bones of the land are right there in plain sight — not hidden under thick topsoil, nor covered by heavy forests or vegetation. A great deal of the acreage is simple bare rock. Today, one can experience that without being extraordinarily fit and tough, or enduring extreme risk, as the heart of Grand Staircase-Escalante, and most of the best attractions, are accessible with a four-wheel-drive vehicle and some moderate hiking.
But this brings me back to monument policy. When it was first designated, President Clinton set it up as a place focused on science — in addition to the fossils, the monument has tons of biodiversity that had yet to be catalogued. For instance, a recently-completed study found 660 species of bees in the monument, 49 of them previously unknown. Under his leadership, about half of the BLM staff were dedicated to science, and the agency kept a grant fund for new research.
Contrary to what one might assume, under Clinton the monument was not at all against grazing per se. Rather, almost all the land was available for ranching. The objective was to be balanced — allowing a decent amount of grazing, but also a healthy amount of science and recreation of various sorts. Public lands, of course, are owned by all Americans in common, and should not all be museums where nothing but low-impact hiking happens. A balanced approach where the most beautiful or delicate treasures and the most valuable cultural or scientific resources get the highest protection, while reasonable allowances are made for business and agriculture where they won't do too much harm, is perfectly sensible.
But as Christopher Ketcham writes in High Country News, all this changed with the election of George W. Bush, who eviscerated the monument's science budget and hired more range managers. That remaining staff was disproportionately made up of conservative local Mormons, who sneered at science and environmental preservation. Instead of cows being one among several priorities, the entire monument effectively became a cattle ranch, with grazing allowed on nearly 97 percent of its area — only the Escalante waters were protected from cows by environmental groups like the Grand Canyon Trust who had previously bought out the permits.
Many hoped things would change back under President Obama, but here, as in many other areas, he largely went along with the Bush approach for most of his presidency. Only in 2014 did his administration start developing a new management plan which would be slightly less accommodating to cattle ranchers.
Cows, as one might expect, wreak havoc on the delicate desert environment. They devour native plants, they pollute land and water with their dung, and above all they stomp down the biological soil crust. Also known as cryptobiotic soil, this "biocrust" is a mat of bacteria, fungi, lichen, and sometimes moss that covers the ground in between sparse desert plants. It's "what holds the ecosystem together," Mary O'Brien, a forests specialist at Grand Canyon Trust, told The Week. "It's like a giant leaf on the ground." This crust performs important nitrogen-fixing, photosynthesis, erosion control, and other functions that are done by regular plants in wetter environments — and without it, the ground erodes very fast during occasional flash floods.
And that brings me finally to the new Trump management plan. On grazing, Trump would basically overturn the monument designation entirely — reducing "resource protections for the Monument to the baseline level common to unprotected lands at your average BLM Field Office," says Lauren Welp, an ecosystems specialist for Western Watersheds Project. Total cattle numbers are to be increased by 40 percent. Even the 3 percent of retired grazing leases — which cost the Trust hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain — would be returned to use. "In these narrow canyons, even a small number of cows would chomp up the plants, trample the streambank, and splatter the narrow trail with cowpies in a matter of days. It would take decades to return the area to its current healthy state," Travis Bruner, conservation director for the Trust, told The Week.
The BLM will not even allow environmental groups to buy up future grazing permits in order to protect the land — it's use it or lose it. "In brief, it represents a total abdication of the BLM's conservation responsibility of the Grand Staircase," Nicole Croft, executive director of the conservation group Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, told The Week.
But wait, one might be thinking. Didn't I just say this was a super-harsh desert? How can cows live out on this barren country?
The answer is, they can't — or at least, they can't without a gushing firehose of subsidies and freebies from the federal government. These come in several forms: First, the BLM radically under-prices its grazing fees. It costs just $1.35 to graze a cow/calf pair on federal public lands for a month in 2019 (down from $1.87 in 2017, and literally the lowest legally-allowed amount). By contrast, Western states charge between $10 and $24.50 for their public lands, and fees for private lands averaged $23.40 in 2017.
Second, the BLM keeps cattle fed with public cash. In the high desert, cows will quickly devour the delicate native desert vegetation and starve, so the BLM has taken to planting — on its own nickel — enormous tracts of drought-tolerant exotic foreign imports like crested wheatgrass and Russian wildrye. Often they do this after "masticating" and "chaining" the native vegetation — that is, chewing up the native pinon and juniper trees with a heavy industrial shredder, and driving a heavy chain between two tractors to tear out all the native scrub brush.
To reach their 40-percent increase target, the BLM will have to radically step up these activities. The administration was dealt a setback in September, when a judge rejected BLM plans to clear-cut 30,000 acres in Grand Staircase-Escalante, but that was based largely on the old management plan. If the new one is approved, they will likely be able to get right back at it. That will happen 60 days from August 23rd, unless the governor of Utah objects, or the administration loses ongoing court challenges to its decision to slash the monument's size. (Indeed, trying to jam through a new plan before the courts can rule against them is likely half the point of this move.)
And even after all this, cattle-raising on Utah federal lands is still an extremely marginal business. In 2018 many ranchers had to liquidate their herds due to that year's extreme drought. Dozens of cows starved in nearby Capitol Reef National Park when they ran out of forage.
At bottom, cattle ranching is just a profoundly goofy way to use this kind of public land. Through vast government effort and great bucketfuls of cash from John Q. Taxpayer, the Grand Staircase-Escalante area has become... some of the worst pastureland in the lower 48. It's like some Republican caricature of a Big Government boondoggle.
Local conservatives, especially the good old boys who dominate the local governments in Kane County and Garfield Country (combined population: roughly 15,000) where most of the monument is located, naturally regard all this as their sacred birthright. Ranching (along with mining and drilling) is an expression of tough, manly rugged individualism, and it is entirely characteristic of Western conservatives to studiously ignore the enormous welfare payments it requires to prop up their preposterous cowboy facade.
As an aside, if anybody has an actual right to the land, it is surely the handful of remaining Southern Paiutes (along with the Utes who gave Utah its name). They made this corner of Utah their home for centuries before whites stole their land and exterminated virtually the entire community.
Anyway, that brings us to extractive industry. Trump's plan would open up most of the land that he gouged out of the original monument to mining and drilling. The area is rich in oil, gas, and especially coal. New coal mines within the old monument boundaries are probably unlikely, given its low price and the difficulty of putting pipes and road infrastructure into such a remote location — though it's not out of the question, as the administration did recently approve a nearby coal strip mine, the first in Utah history.
Oil and gas would be somewhat easier, and it's likely some companies would at least apply for leases, because forcing through more extractive industry was a major internal justification within Republican circles for slashing the size of the monument, as emails revealed by The New York Times showed. In addition, "The BLM is rearranging their table of organization for the Monument staff, bringing in a natural resource specialist, something that is rare to see in units that don't actively monitor oil and gas leases," says Croft.
Others may attempt to get some leases just in the hope that they can get bought out if the next administration cancels them, as happened during the process of the original designation of the monument in 1996. "It could be postulated that this is a speculative move on the part of lessees at this time with the ongoing litigation," Carolyn Shelton, who worked at the monument from 2001-2016, told The Week.
Ironically, given all the conservative chest-thumping about jobs, this plan could very well be an economic disaster for the region. Tourist visitation at Grand Staircase-Escalante has nearly doubled since 1996, as word gradually spread about its beauty, remoteness, and clear skies. One study found the monument was the darkest and quietest place in the continental U.S. This has driven a modest recreation economy based around restaurants, outfitting, guiding, and so forth. Even before the new management plan, this has been impinged by Trump's gutting of the monument — Joe and Suzanne Catlett, owners of a restaurant in Escalante, told the Grand Canyon Trust: "we have seen an immediate and direct decrease in our sales and revenue compared to years prior."
Oil and gas wells are extremely loud and lit up with blinding high-powered lights. Indeed, in their environmental impact statement, the BLM had to present several alternatives to their own proposal — which they found had the most dust, most noise, and most light pollution of any of the options.
On the other hand, as I have previously written, extractive industry often leads to economic distress even when it works out as planned. It leads to high incomes for certain workers in the short term, which inflates local wages and housing prices (especially in tiny local towns). And then if the deposit runs out, or the price falls (which must happen eventually), a crushing local recession ensues. Vernal, Utah in the northeastern part of the state has gone through several of these boom-bust cycles over the last several decades thanks to dependence on the gyrating price of oil.
Finally, there is climate change. There is certain to be a Democratic president at some point in the future, very possibly by 2021. If they have any sense at all, their first act as president will be to ban all fossil-fuel development on public lands. And even if Trump declares himself dictator-for-life, it's not impossible to imagine the United States being subject to international blockade if it refuses to take some climate action. Going all-in on Big Carbon at this late date is just willful idiocy.
Cows and fossil fuels are just not what a sensible modern society does with its delicate and pristine desert wilderness — and yet, that is the Trump plan. It's a reminder to continue the fight to preserve America's public lands for all its people, and for the next Democratic president to not waste so much time dithering and dragging his feet. We don't have time to squander another six years failing to undo Trump's misdeeds.
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