Near the Paria River, the eerie Toadstool Hoodoos, favorites among landscape photographers, have lost the protections of the now-dismantled Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. But they are on a federal Wilderness Study Area, which shields the site from development.
To the east, the moon-like Sooner Rocks camping area also has lost its monument status, and it has no wilderness designation. If a bill now before Congress succeeds, the nearby Hole In The Rock Road could be transformed from a low-speed dirt lane to a paved highway.
Far to the north, at Capitol Reef National Park, the picturesque Upper Muley Twist Canyon trail was never part of the monument — but it is barely a mile from land where advocates worry that expired drilling leases could be revived now that the monument has receded.
Every distinction matters. A once-seamless expanse of protected federal lands has become a patchwork of designations and regulations since President Donald Trump on Monday eliminated half of Grand Staircase-Escalante and divided what remains into three separate monuments.
The implications for the natural attractions both in and around the former monument vary wildly, and some of Utah’s most beloved backcountry areas could be affected, conservationists warn.
After a planning process of closed-door government meetings and with no explanation for why certain sites were removed from protection, it’s difficult to tease out the ramifications for each of the area’s points of interest, said John Ruple, a University of Utah law professor specializing in public lands management.
“There’s a reason the lines were drawn as they were, and we don’t know what that was,” Ruple said. “It’s a black box. It’s not transparent.”
The new boundaries encompass 838,000 acres, roughly half of the original 1.7 million.
Wilderness study areas remain shielded
In between the three new monuments, many of the slot canyons, arches and rock formations of Grand Staircase Escalante fall in a network of Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs). WSAs are lands that have been set aside for potential federal wilderness designation.
In both study areas and wilderness areas, new construction is banned and all mechanized vehicles, even bicycles, are forbidden from off-road travel.
The well-known Dry Fork slot canyons — Peekaboo, Spooky and Brimstone gulches — the Wahweap and Toadstool Hoodoos, and the Egypt slot canyons all are on WSAs outside new monument boundaries.
Only an act of Congress can reverse a WSA designation.
“Congress could release those Wilderness Study Areas tomorrow, [but] I think it’s unlikely that they would,” Ruple said. “It’s safe to say WSAs … have significant and meaningful substantive protections.”
Stephen Bloch, attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, agreed, noting that none of Utah’s Congressional delegation has tried to eliminate or reduce WSAs. “I think our WSAs are stable,” he said.
Oil, gas and coal leases may draw new interest
Land that is no longer in monument boundaries and is outside the WSAs will be still managed by the Bureau of Land Management — and could be eligible for drilling leases.
Old BLM maps show that a number of oil, gas and coal leases in the area were active when the monument was created in 1996, and many of those are concentrated in the areas now removed from protection.
That could impact some hikes and other visitor attractions.
A broad strip of land more than 95,000 acres adjacent to Capitol Reef National Park has been removed from the monument. BLM maps show that area — which approaches Circle Cliffs and extends to the popular Wolverine Loop Road — was chock-a-block with oil and gas leases when the original monument plan was drafted in the late 1990s.
SUWA found that many leases in the north half of the excluded section were expired, but most leases in the south half were “suspended,” or kept active indefinitely, for potential tar sands mining, Bloch said.
Active leases were grandfathered into the monument, but no digging began while they were in monument boundaries.
Those suspended leases abut Horse Canyon, Wolverine Canyon and Little Death Hollow and surround the Wolverine Loop Road.
Development could move closer
The elimination of the Wolverine Loop area from the monument highlights another development tied to the shrunken monument: It no longer acts as a buffer to adjacent protected lands.
The new map eliminates long stretches where the monument previously shared boundaries with Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the Box-Death Hollow and Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs wilderness areas.
That could allow development to move closer to renowned natural features both in the new monument and in nearby jurisdictions.
“I think people would be surprised to drive down a dirt road to a popular trailhead, and find that it’s now an active mining site, or a year from now that there’s an oil and gas company that bought a lease and is doing ... invasive techniques to look for oil and gas,” Bloch said.
He pointed as an example to a drill site near Moab, on the road to Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands, where pipelines have been built, noise pollution is routine, rigs light up the night, and industrial trucks fill the roads.
“That’s certainly in the realm of the possible (around the new monument boundaries),” Bloch said.
Buckskin Gulch, dubbed the longest slot canyon in the world, is an internationally famous hike in the Buckskin Gulch-Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, which until Monday abutted the national monument. Now more than 70 percent of the 16.5-mile route of dark and winding slickrock runs within a mile and a half of unprotected lands.
On the opposite side of the monuments, close to Hole-in-the-Rock Road, nearly all of Coyote Gulch and Fortymile Gulch are within 2 miles of now-unprotected lands, and their trailheads are removed from protection.
But it’s not clear whether drilling actually will occur in these remote lands or what other uses might be desired. BLM officials in Utah did not return calls from The Tribune.
“Are there really significant money-making deposits of oil, coal, gas, uranium in the Grand Staircase? I don’t think so, but there are people willing to try, and they have a friendly administration to facilitate that,” Bloch said.
Zinke has said Trump’s changes won’t affect the ownership of land previously in the Grand Staircase-Escalente monument or in the former Bears Ears National Monument, which the president reduced by 85 percent and split into two new monuments.
But Congress may have different plans. One day after Trump’s proclamation, Utah Rep. Chris Stewart introduced a bill that would transfer Hole in the Rock Road to the state of Utah ”in recognition of this historically significant Mormon pioneer trail,” according to a news release.
Utah’s legislature has instructed state parks managers to pursue 6,000 acres of federal land there to create a Mormon heritage park. Local leaders also have long wanted to pave the 57-mile road from Escalante to Lake Powell, where pioneers lowered their wagons down a cliff to the Colorado River.
It’s not clear how those developments would affect other sites in the area or whether other land transfers may be proposed.
Stewart’s office did not return The Tribune’s calls for comment.