I’ve lived in southwest Utah for just over a decade, nestled between the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Over these past 11 years, I’ve transformed my little pile of sand into a home, complete with a grape arbor, cactus and vegetable garden, and orchard. Each morning I enjoy my coffee looking out at the sacred mountain of the Navajo nation and I feel the peace that has so often eluded me.
While I grew up in New York City, I’ve always loved the desert, and the red rock desert of Utah now holds a special power for me. That is why I welcome the visit of our new secretary of the Department of the Interior, Deb Haaland, to Utah. I hope she will take a simple message back to Washington — Utah’s lands need federal protection.
During this past year of people wanting to experience the freedom of the outdoors during the pandemic, I’ve embraced the new and old visitors to our parks and public lands, those discovering and rediscovering the restorative power of nature. But I also cannot ignore the damage the influx of visitors has had on these spaces. From littering and graffiti to more permanent injury to the landscapes, the past few months especially have made it clear that these lands need the protection of the federal government, and local tribes need a greater management role in safeguarding the majestic spaces they hold as sacred.
The recent flurry of press releases and self-imposed ultimatums targeting the Biden-Harris administration issued by Utah’s elected officials fail to recognize that our state had four years under the Trump administration to work with tribes and stakeholders to arrive at a legislative solution for these public lands. State leaders also had an opportunity to engage in the management planning process for the Trump-imposed boundaries for the monuments. They failed to do either.
In fact, the Utah delegation has a history of bad faith promises in legislative bargaining, dating back to former Rep. Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative. The delegation has had five years to write legislation on Bears Ears and they have shown no interest in doing the hard work to craft a bill, much less build a coalition to pass it. Now it’s time to prioritize public good over broken political promises.
Haaland and her team’s review of the cultural, historical and scientific importance of these national monuments will likely inspire President Joe Biden to swiftly follow through on campaign promises to restore protections and provide tribes with a greater role in management of culturally significant landscapes. Doing so not only fulfills the administration’s push to rebuild our economy, but also honors its commitment to restorative justice, environmental protection and improving the mental health of veterans like me. We, and these sacred places, don’t have any more time to waste.
Serving as a combat nurse in Vietnam, I never felt like I was doing enough. The pressure to do more, save more, and heal more never let up. Treating and caring for injured soldiers, rarely older than 18 and 19, left me sorely in need of repair and healing myself. So, after I left the Army, I went west to find peace among nature.
I, and so many others, find that peace in places like Bears Ears. There, no one is asking anything of me. I get to sit in stillness with reverence and reflection. It’s during these moments that I can fully reconnect to my country and myself — where small noises don’t make me jump back to the darkest days of war and trauma, and where I can put my own experiences in perspective with something much greater than myself.
I urge the Biden-Harris administration to recognize that same idea, that our generation is but one in a long and continuing timeline of generations, and it is our turn to protect these special places. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante need protection now. The sooner that the damage of the Trump-Pence administration is put right, the sooner we can begin to protect our precious natural history and incorporate traditional knowledge into the management of our irreplaceable sacred sites, our cultural and paleontological resources, and ancestral lands.
Margaret Mitchell served in Texas, Missouri and Vietnam in the United States Army from 1968-69. She lives in Ticaboo, Utah.