When President Obama created “Bears Ears National Monument,” it was an accepted fact that with the designation would come massive development studies, master plans, draft management plans, and ultimately, the approval of multi-million dollar visitor centers, improved roads, and other infrastructure “improvements” that the Bureau of Land Management will feel it needs to protect the recently designated resource.
Everyone, especially among those who wanted the original monument, including Utah’s environmental hierarchy, knew this would be a consequence of designation. Most welcomed it. In Bluff, worried that an official visitor center would take too long, private interests, funded mostly by the outdoor recreation industry, built its own “Bears Ears Education Center” to inform the public of the area’s sensitive natural and archaeological resources.
This publication and others have been concerned that too much publicity and promotion, as a consequence of the monument designation, is causing far greater impacts. Most environmentalists have condemned our position. But 20 years ago, they couldn’t have agreed more.
In the late 1990s, the BLM proposed to build a relatively small visitor center at Kane Gulch, on Cedar Mesa, right in the heart of what is now Bears Ears NM. Utah environmentalists vehemently opposed the construction of such a visitor center. In fact, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) filed a legal challenge to the BLM’s proposed visitor center at Grand Gulch, because they thought such a facility would do irreparable damage by generating more interest in Cedar Mesa, and consequently more tourists.
A book published in 2002, “Justice and Natural Resources: Concepts, Strategies, and Applications,” edited by Gerald Torres, described the debate like this:
“A proposal to build a visitor center in the canyon country of southern Utah provides one example of how NEPA can be used to protect communities and their environments. In Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance et al, the Department of the Interior Board of Land Appeals reviewed and remanded the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decision to construct a visitor center at Kane Gulch on the Grand Gulch mesa…
“Specifically the Appellants (SUWA) objected to BLM’s failure to consider, in an EA (Environmental Assessment) prepared for the facility, the potential harm to natural and cultural resources from a potential increase of visitors to the area. Increased use has caused substantial degradation to significant portions of Utah canyon lands…
“…BLM expressly decided not to address the possibility that new facilities would increase visitor use, because the BLM assumed visitor use would increase regardless of facility construction. Consequently, BLM did not consider the facility’s impact on cultural resources caused by increased use and damage to natural resources.”
“…Noting that the BLM had described the proposed visitor center as an ‘effective portal to the world class resources of the Cedar Mesa outdoor museum,’ and planned to provide potable water in the high desert canyon land, IBLA found that the EA should have determined whether the facility would, in fact, attract more visitors.”
The passage from the book reminded me of an email conversation I once had with then-SUWA staffer Amy Irvine. In 2001, I was already expressing concern that Industrial Tourism was having an ill effect on lands that organization claimed it wanted to protect. On December 26, 2001, Irvine responded to my complaints writing:
“SUWA does not use potentially land-damaging types of ‘economic growth’ as a leverage for wilderness designation. In fact, as you well know Jim, SUWA has fought against proposals that would have brought in more tourism and exposure to wilderness quality lands. Remember the Kane Gulch ranger station…the increased impacts would have come from more HIKERS in the wilderness lands, yet SUWA effectively appealed it.”
The IBLA also noted that Native Americans in the area were being given short shrift by the BLM. In the chapter of the book that describes the SUWA/BLM conflict, the authors, Barney E. Hill and Nicholas Targ, also wrote this:
“The loss of desert habitat is of special concern to local tribes who ‘gather pinyon nuts from the canyons for food and collect herb indigenous only to [Cedar Mesa] for traditional medicines and blessing rituals.’ “
“… IBLA expressed concern that the EA did not consider the direct effect or indirect effects on cultural resources of the increased number of visitors. Moreover, IBLA was ‘troubled by BLM’s treatment of Native concerns, since it expressly declined to address these issues and effectively acknowledged that, as of the issuance of the decision to go ahead, it had not fully resolved those concerns, but that it would do so in the future.’Remanding the decision to the BLM, IBLA ordered BLM to complete the dialogue entered into with the tribes, to consider the effect of increased visitors to the area, and to identify vulnerable cultural resources likely to be impacted by increased use of the area.'”
In 2020, the question is, ‘What changed?’ In the late 90s, Utah’s most vocal environmental organization was prepared to go to court to stop the BLM from building a visitor center on Cedar Mesa. SUWA believed it would generate more interest in the area and would bring more tourists, which SUWA identified as a real threat to the cultural and natural resources of Grand Gulch. It opposed providing potable water to visitors, the idea being it would make the trip more difficult and as a result, keep the numbers down.
As for the Native Americans who are mentioned in the IBLA appeal, many of their concerns weren’t heard any more clearly in 2016 than they were in 1998.
For as long as I’ve been doing the Zephyr, I’ve always known: “It’s the NUMBERS that destroy a place.” I wish SUWA and other environmental groups still remembered.
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.