How will southern Utah’s redrawn national monuments be managed?

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tourists on Wednesday explore the Toadstools, formations located in an area recently removed from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The spot 45 miles east of Kanab is a popular destination for families. The Bureau of Land Management is developing plans for managing the 900,000 acres in Utah's Kane and Garfield counties that President Donald Trump stripped from the monument, as well as the 1 million acres that remain. Photo by Brian Maffly, shot March 28, 2018

Kanab • Should a national monument encourage visitation to its grand attractions with paved roads and restrooms, or should federal managers seek to preserve the lands in their natural state?

That is among the key questions the Bureau of Land Management will be weighing over the next year as it crafts new management plans for the greatly reduced Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in southern Utah.

Kane County Commissioner Lamont Smith feels the BLM has erred in the past on the side of preservation, at the expense of meaningful visitor access and multiple use on the Grand Staircase’s 1.9 million acres, which President Donald Trump trimmed by nearly half.

Too often visitors venture onto the monument in search of a “monumental” experience that they can’t find, Smith said — so they drive aimlessly up back roads, sometimes getting lost.

“You don’t make a monument that people can’t get to or see,” said Smith, who served as sheriff when President Bill Clinton established the monument in a surprise designation in 1996. “We lost two people up there just looking for the monument. It should be something monumental. They come and see it.”

Smith was among dozens of local officials, Kane County residents and activists who attended a “scoping” meeting Wednesday in Kanab Middle School’s gym. Under basketball hoops, BLM staffers had erected a series of maps, each depicting various resources and land uses on the monument — now sliced into three units — and invited people to share their thoughts on how the lands should be managed.

More rapid review

The BLM wrapped up such meetings last week in the four towns closest to the monuments: Blanding and Bluff, just outside Bears Ears; and in Kanab and Escalante near the Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Critics insist the BLM should refrain from monument planning until the courts resolve five lawsuits challenging Trump’s Dec. 4 orders shaving 2 million acres from the two monuments. At the very least, they contend, the agency should hold additional meetings in Salt Lake City and other cities and extend the public-comment period beyond the April 11 and 13 deadlines for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, respectively.

But that kind of review is unlikely since the BLM is operating under new directives from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to complete environmental impact studies of the two sites within a year.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Kanab restaurateur Victor Cooper said the review process “is frustrating.”

“Millions of people commented saying they were in favor of the monument and they disregarded those comments,” said Cooper. “They said they are interested in your comments and will take them into account. Zinke proved that they are not taking them into account.”

Within a year, the BLM plans to finalize two environmental impact studies, one for each for Grand Staircase and Bears Ears. Those attending Wednesday’s Kanab meeting brought up numerous issues they have with with the current monument plan, adopted in the late 1990s.

“My goal is get people to make their comments ... and make a plan that people feel they had a part in,” said acting monument manager Harry Barber. “We want to boil those down and see what nuggets come out of there and see what we can do to address those comments.”

To plan or not to plan

The management plans are intended to put in place a vision Trump articulated in his controversial proclamations reducing the monuments, documents that emphasize access and multiple use of the land, and de-emphasize the goals of managing it with an eye toward scientific inquiry or visitor solitude.

Hardly a year old, Bears Ears has yet to be managed as a monument and many proponents insist the planning effort is a waste of time.

“I would recommend that all of those things be put to a halt until our litigation on the monument has ended,” said Mark Maryboy, a Navajo politician active with Utah Dine Bikeyah, the local non-profit that helped develop the Bears Ears monument proposal. “We believe we will prevail in our lawsuit.”

But BLM officials say visitation to the Bears Ears region is now skyrocketing and a plan needs to be put in place to manage visitation, regarded as a major threat to the area’s archaeological treasures.

Pro-monument activist Josh Ewing, who runs a group called Friends of Cedar Mesa, agrees.

“It would be irresponsible not to plan for this area,” Ewing said. “Comb Ridge, Upper Butler Wash are getting huge visitation and no resources. This may be a flawed process, but if we can get some positive things out of it, then we can plan for the bigger area once the lawsuit is resolved.”

But there’s a hitch. Most visitors to the region go to Cedar Mesa, which offers spectacular hikes into several canyons. Trump removed the area, rich in both Anasazi antiquities and natural beauty, from the monument, as well as Dark Canyon and Elk Ridge. Accordingly, the current planning process fails to address some of the busiest places within the 1.35-million acres President Barack Obama originally designated as a monument.

The new management plan will also grapple with other increasingly popular destinations, such as Moon House, Comb Ridge, Butler Wash and Mule Canyon, home of the iconic and easily accessed House on Fire ruin.

BLM paleontologist Alan Titus Tourists on Wednesday describes some of the dinosaur fossils the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument during a public meeting in Kanab. The Bureau of Land Management is developing plans for managing the 900,000 acres in Utah's Kane and Garfield counties that President Donald Trump stripped from the monument, as well as the 1 million acres that remain. Photo by Brian Maffly, shot March 28, 2018

The Bears Ears environmental-impact study is by far the simplest of the two, analyzing a plan for the 200,000 acres that remain in the monument.

The Staircase study, by contrast, involves analyzing four new land-use plans, one for each of the monument’s three units—Grand Staircase, the coal-rich Kaiparowits Plateau and Escalante Canyons, each a monumental landscape in its own right — and a fourth for the 900,000 acres removed from the monument.

Ranchers and elected officials such as Smith have cheered the Staircase reduction, but it came as a blow for entrepreneurs who have built businesses around tourism the monument has drawn to the once sleepy corner of Utah.

The owner of the popular Rocking V Cafe, Cooper is among a large group of Kane and Garfield business leaders that Zinke refused to meet during his tour of the Utah monuments last May. The Interior secretary was widely criticized for hearing primarily from anti-monument stakeholders, including some bearing chunks of coal, before issuing the recommendations that Trump signed.

The president’s order delighted Utah political leaders and local officials who see national monuments as a threat to local customs and “traditional” land uses.

Kanab rancher Hal Hamblin grazes the same land allotments his great-grandfather ran cattle on a century ago. He contends the monument thwarts range improvements to the detriment of both wildlife and livestock producers.

“By not allowing any management on the land, we have lost acres and acres to erosion and encroachment of pinyon-juniper,” Hamblin said. As a result, he said, his operation cannot sustain as many cattle as it once did.

After failed attempts, monument managers have yet to adopt a grazing plan. Ranchers complain the BLM officials default to restrictive measures on grazing, while environmentalists say ranchers have themselves to blame for sabotaging the BLM’s attempts to craft plans in the past.

Officials hope to correct the planning vacuum with a new Staircase plan that covers the 79 allotments used by 90 permittees.

The question of coal

Of deep concern to environmentalists is industry access to vast coal deposits, some located on leased public lands that were extricated from the monument with surgical precision. Utah Rep. Mike Noel, a fierce monument critic, and county commissioners say they are no longer interested in seeing those coal reserves mined, given the declining U.S. demand for coal and the remoteness of the Kaiparowits deposits.

But many locals and environmentalists would like to see the coal deposits remain off limits, although Trump’s order makes minerals available on lands pulled from the monuments. So far only one mining claim has been filed on lands removed from the Staircase and it seeks to extract alabaster, according to the BLM

For both monuments, the BLM will postpone debate on the hot-button issue of motorized access in favor of creating separate travel plans later. Road closures were the biggest bone of contention for the Staircase, and local officials said they would like to see many public lands re-opened to motorized use.

“[The BLM] went in and closed so many roads, which causes everyone to funnel on certain roads,” Smith said. “Even in the monument, you need the roads there to drive around and look at what is there.”

Trump’s order indicates any roads remaining in the Staircase monument that were opened to motorized use in 1996 may be re-opened. And for the hundreds of miles of closed roads falling outside the monument, it’s a good bet that motorized access will be restored to most of them.

Smith’s biggest priority is the route up Paria Wash, once a favorite destination for all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts.

“We need to sit down and decide what to do with the roads inside, but the new proclamation says it is going to be used for recreation, hunting, fishing, grazing, so they need those roads,” Smith said. “They need to go about it a lot different way than they did with the original monument.”