Mary O’Brien: Monument plan could be kiss of death for Death Hollow

(Carlos Osorio | AP file photo) Walking between mineral-streaked cliffs of Navajo Sandstone, hikers pass beaver ponds and pre-historic rock art sites enroute to the 126-foot-high Lower Calf Creek waterfalls shown in the Bureau of Land Management's Calf Creek Recreation Area in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, Aug. 30, 2011.

My son Josh was 16 in 1989 when we hiked as a family 18 miles down Death Hollow in southern Utah. We started out from Hell’s Backbone and worked our way down through Bureau of Land Management land, eventually reaching the Escalante River.

This took five days, while the land around us morphed from a dry, shallow channel to a progressively deeper, wetter and narrower canyon. We saw almost no other people. The shocker was arriving, on the last day, at the confluence with the Escalante River.

It stank. Weeds dominated. The water was fouled green and, as if out of central casting, a dead cow lay with its legs in the air. This cattle cafeteria, water trough and bathroom was the Escalante River as managed by the BLM.

Seven years later, in 1996, the Escalante River became part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Grand Canyon Trust soon purchased from several willing ranchers their cattle grazing permits along the river, knowing that the BLM was interested in closing the river corridor to cattle. The ranchers had been seeking economic relief, and the complaints of hikers and campers walking along the river had been incessant. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources touted the water and wildlife benefits that would flow from the change. Ultimately, the BLM did close the river to cattle grazing in 1999, via a public process.

Fast forward to 2014, 25 years after that first hike, and Josh’s 8-year old son Linus is now hiking with us down Death Hollow. His sleeping bag falls out from his backpack as he leaps off a boulder. He swims in the river. He gets in a sword fight with his dad. We all watch a ribbon of stars at night.

This time, when we reached the confluence with the Escalante River, we met a river being restored. Open cottonwood galleries and ponderosa pine stands now flanked the river six miles east to Highway 12 – one result of the Escalante River Watershed Partnership’s years of work to remove Russian olive throughout the watershed.

And now in 2019, 30 years after Josh’s boyhood hike down Death Hollow? The BLM proposes not only to revert to the past, funneling cattle back along the Escalante River, but also to send cattle up narrow Death Hollow, which has been free of cattle grazing for upwards of 40 years. The only vegetation for cattle to eat will be next to the creek, and their preferred location will be in and along the water.

What is this BLM trying to prove?

Reading the “Proposed Plans” for the diminished Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Kanab-Escalante Planning Area that has been carved out of the monument, one does wonder. Is the BLM trying to prove it has the power to obliterate the very idea and memory of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument? That it has the power to permit deforestation, mining, fossil-hunting and cattle grazing to the point that no one will bother to protest when this national monument is finally broken and scattered into private hands?

This is the public lands specter we face as a nation under this administration, just as we face the diminution of staffing, the rollback of environmental protections, the dismissal of scientific evidence, the promotion of temperature rise and the shredding of public input processes.

But we always have choices as a nation and it is up to us all to defend Death Hollow and all of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Mary O'Brien | Grand Canyon Trust

Mary O’Brien is Utah Forests Program director for Grand Canyon Trust. Pinyon, juniper, biocrusts and bees are among the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument resources she works with others to protect.