Sarah Bauman: Honor the Grand Staircase deal and protect the last frontier

Monument protects sacred land and insight into the past of our planet.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Broken country of scrub and sandstone washes on top of the Kaiparowits Plateau in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, photographed in December, 2001.

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to review the boundaries of several national monuments, including Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments in Utah. This order is the beginning of an effort to undo the illegal, unprecedented and unpopular rollbacks of public land and water protections by the Trump administration in the last few years.

Immediately following this announcement of this executive order, news outlets began publishing article after article about this action citing “political football.”

The phrase “political football” comes directly from a statement written by several Utah delegates complaining of federal overreach. However, the real act of political football is the proposal of new challenges to the full, legal restoration of these previously established and popular monuments. The new challenges also disregard a deal made between the state of Utah and the federal government two years after the monument was established, which I will explain at the end of this letter.

More importantly, these monuments protect sacred land, offer insight into our planet’s past through some of the most unspoiled terrain in the country and have enormous potential for climate change mitigation. For Grand Staircase-Escalante, the best decision we can make is to honor the deal struck in 1998 and protect this last frontier in our country.

Grand Staircase was the last place in the contiguous United States to be mapped. There are still places within the original monument that have not seen a human footprint — they are truly untouched. Imagine that. And in these places there are complex ecosystems that have survived because they have not been disturbed.

These pristine ecological communities were described in the 1996 proclamation that initially established the monument. They include sensitive cryptobiotic crusts that stabilize the soil and provide nutrients for plants. These crusts contain a wealth of biological importance we are still working to understand.

These ecological communities include some of the most diverse wildlife in all of Utah, with mountain lions, bears, bats, over 200 species of birds, thousands of plant species and invertebrates. There are ancient trees hidden in this terrain up to 1,400 years old.

Grand Staircase is a geological treasure and a paleontologist’s dream — with new dinosaur species still being discovered. There have been over 3,500 paleontological sites established on the monument since 1996, and that’s with only a fraction of the monument inventoried. What other discoveries await? We will not know if the protections continue to shrink. Within Grand Staircase, we have the capacity to preserve a scientific record like no place on Earth.

Less than 7% of the monument has been surveyed for archeological sites, and the Native peoples who call this monument their ancestral home have more at stake than any of us. When the record of their family history is gone — appearing on petroglyphs and pictographs — it can never be retrieved. And that loss will ripple across generations.

The magnitude of loss is immeasurable if we don’t preserve the landscapes, biodiversity and ecological communities. Once an animal or plant species is lost, we cannot retrieve it. And we have no idea what this means for our ecosystems, our rivers, forests and, ultimately, life on Earth. This is a reality we face in many places around the world. We are losing our wilderness faster than we can comprehend, and no amount of protections will bring back what we have already lost.

In less than 50 years, we have lost 60% of our wildlife populations and, according to recent studies published by National Geographic, species of plants, animals and insects are going extinct more than 1,000 times faster than ever before.

If you had a chance to protect a place that could serve as an ark for species survival, would you do it? Because we can do it here. We must do it here.

Now, back to the deal that took place when land was purchased and exchanged after the monument was established. Grand Staircase is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. This federal agency already managed most of this land before the monument’s designation in 1996. After the monument was created, Utah leaders filed lawsuits. But then, in 1998, a deal was struck and the largest land swap occurred — hailed as a “win-win” public lands compromise.

In this deal, the federal government received 376,739 acres and was able to expand the monument’s boundaries because of this deal. The state of Utah received $50 million and over 139,000 acres of mineral rich land. This land was estimated to be worth $1 billion over time, and the state has already made over $360 million from the deal.

When Trump reduced the boundaries, this deal was breached. Some of the land that was removed from the monument in 2017 was land that was part of the deal. And this deal and land exchange was already finalized through legislative action by a bipartisan Congress. When I am asked what we can do to prevent Grand Staircase from being a political football, my response is simple: honor the deal and protect the last frontier.

Sarah Bauman

Sarah Bauman, Kanab, is executive director for Grand Staircase Escalante Partners.