“If future generations are to remember us with more gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it.”
-Lyndon Baines Johnson
Hello readers! We apologize for our silence in the past couple weeks. Since we’ve last written many events have transpired. The team took a quick break as two members flew from Las Vegas to Bozeman, Montana for a wedding. After the brief vacation we reconvened and hit the road once again!
WOWFWL Days 32-41: St. George, UT – Mexican Hat, UT.
We had a long uphill trek our first day back on the road, as we departed St. George, UT (2,800 ft) with our sights set on Cedar Breaks National Monument at 10,500 ft. The climb took us two days, with a night spent in the small town of Kannaraville.
The climb was daunting but the view that awaited us as we rolled into Cedar Breaks made it more than worth it.
Cedar Breaks National Monument was established in 1933 and protects a 3 mile long 2,000 ft deep natural amphitheater of impressive red towers and needles. We took a quick break to admire the view and then continued another 30 miles to the town of Panguitch.
We departed from Panguitch early the next morning, eager to arrive in Bryce Canyon National Park in time to do some hiking. That morning we got our first taste of the scenic highway 12 across UT, a 123 mile stretch of road that many agree is one of the most scenic roads in the country. It received the designation of All American Highway in 2002. Many locals who were interested in our route told us this would be our favorite road of the entire trip. We were lucky enough to bike hwy 12 in its entirety and it lived up to every word.
During our short visit to Bryce Canyon National Park, we hiked the Navajo trail to the Queen’s Garden Trail, descending into a hoodoo-filled Canyon. Hoodoos are the spire-shaped rock formations famous to Bryce Canyon. Their unique and wacky formations were amazing to behold, as we felt we were descending into a Willy Wonka-esque natural amphitheater. To the Paiute Indians who once inhabited the area, hoodoos were believed to be Legend People turned to stone by the Coyote, a mischievous spirit.
Orange surrounded us on all sides. Between the brilliant orange of the rock and the royal blue of the cloudless sky, Hannah was pleasantly reminded of her beloved alma mater, Macalester College, being that the Canyon and the school share the same colors! We were completely amazed, most of us having never seen geology as astonishing as this, and couldn’t stop exclaiming, “How the heck did this get here?!” (Turns out it was the work of millions of years of water and erosion, but we had fun imagining more creative genesis stories.)
The pink rocks of Bryce make up part of the top-most and youngest rock layer of the Grand Staircase, an immense sequence of sedimentary rock layers that extends west from Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSENM), through Bryce NP, Zion NP, and ending at the Grand Canyon.
In the 1870’s, the region was first conceptualized as a staircase ascending out of the Grand Canyon. Over the next few days, we would be headed “up” the Staircase through these different “steps” and layers of rock. After leaving Bryce on our way to Escalante, we would summit a pass from which we would look up at Powell Point, the topmost “step” and highest point of the Colorado Plateau Grand Staircase.
As is common with many National Parks, Bryce Canyon was first established as a National Monument in 1923, before being expanded and designated as a National Park in 1928. It is 55 square miles and protects much of the Pink Cliffs layer of the Staircase. The Park saw about 2.3 million visitors in 2016, which was up 35 percent from the previous year.
Before departing Bryce for the town of Escalante, we had the chance to meet with the Superintendent of the park, Linda Mazzu. She began the meeting by expressing her belief that public lands are a part of our collective common ground and history. As Superintendent of Bryce, she spends much of her time working with the park budget, which, as is a common theme with the Parks we’ve visited, she says is never quite big enough. But Bryce is lucky, Mazzu explained, because although Bryce has a flat budget, it gets extra money from entrance fees, lodging and concessions, keeping up to 80% of the money made from these enterprises. When we asked about threats facing Bryce, Linda did not seem overly concerned about anything in particular. She did mention the threats of climate change to the park, which results in warmer springs and falls, bringing more rain and less snow to the Canyon. She hopes to begin studying how increased rain and other factors related to Climate Change are affecting the rates of erosion in the park. Bryce has also been seeing increased visitation, but not enough to experience the same issues facing Zion. On our hike in the Canyon, we were pleased to see several park rangers out wandering along the trails, answering visitors’ questions and giving talks to groups about the park geology and history, and some other interesting facts (including that Utah’s state bird is the Seagull, believe it or not!).
After our meeting with Linda, we continued our journey down scenic hwy 12. The day was filled with sweeping views, 15% grade climbs, and one long leisurely descent into the town of Escalante. Escalante lies on the border of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSENM).
Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, President Clinton established this 1.9-million-acre National Monument in 1996, though it was originally considered for protection by Congress as early as 1930. The formation of the GSENM was the biggest land trade since the Louisiana purchase. It is a multi-use monument, meaning grazing, hunting, and even dogs, off-leash, are allowed. The GSENM was created to be an outdoor classroom, the first monument with that objective, preserving the vast resource for future generations to learn from. It was also the first National Monument to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management. It contains some of the world’s best sites for paleontology and houses many important Native American cultural sites. Just a few days afterwepassed through the Monument, the remains of a Tyrannosaurus, completely intact, were airlifted out of the GSENM. The Monument has been controversial ever since its designation, however. The morning after our arrival in Escalante, we met with Sue Fearon, a private lands and restoration coordinator for the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, to learn more about why that is.
Sue explained to us the story of Utah’s settlement, which has led to a relationship of dependence and resentment between the people of the rural west and their public lands. Utah was largely settled by Mormon pioneers, who had been persecuted across the US and forced to flee west, eventually settling in UT. Their leader at the time, Brigham Young, declared UT to be their Zion, or promised land. These people felt a very strong sense of ownership over the land from the very beginning because their prophet, in a sense, gave them this land. Families who moved out to Utah settled in homesteads and took up farming, ranching, and logging. In order to have extra helping hands, most families had a large number of children. Communities enjoyed a subsistent existence and a trade economy for about one generation. However, once the kids had grown up and needed to make a life for themselves, the pie could not be cut thinly enough to account for everybody in the family (usually the eldest would inherit the farm). Most of this younger generation struggled to find work and were forced to leave the homestead and their small community. As a result, many of these small rural communities have suffered. Local industries have traditionally relied on timber harvest and mining, which unfortunately have not been sustainable options because they create “boom bust” cycles in which communities experience booming economic growth followed by a crash once the resource has been used up or becomes unprofitable.
There have long been feelings of resentment toward the federal government in rural west communities and there is often a sentiment that the government should not be able to tell them how to manage the lands that have belonged to their families for generations. Locals have depended on these lands for their livelihood, to provide for themselves and their families, and they do not feel they should have to ask for permission to access these places. People feel as though the monument status “locks” them out of the land. There is a lot of fear, misconception, and blame guiding the opinions of those who oppose these monuments. However, the fact is that the monument is a multi-use monument, which allows for grazing, hunting, and many of the activities that locals have traditionally enjoyed on the land.
As the modern global economy evolves and moves forward, many of the land uses that have supported families in rural communities can no longer compete on a larger scale. Economics, as much as environmental stewardship, has guided many of the land management decisions in the west. Due to their historical and cultural backgrounds, locals are understandably not eager to let go of their traditional way of life or admit that these traditional methods of supporting themselves are no longer sustainable for the future.
We had the opportunity to talk with one of these local ranching families that opposes the monument later that day to hear first hand why they personally object and how the recent debate over the monument has affected their community. We tell that story in just a few paragraphs, so keep reading to learn more (#endclickbait)!
As we mentioned earlier, the Scenic All American Highway 12 was nothing short of breathtaking, and the best was yet to come. We left the town of Escalante headed northeast for Boulder, UT riding for almost the entire day inside the boundary of the GSENM. The ride took us to the rim of and then down into a valley of what looked like hundreds upon hundreds of interconnected canyon systems laid out like a maze before our eyes. We careened down steep hills into the depths only to begrudgingly gain the same elevation we had just lost in an equally steep fashion. We took a break near the middle of the day at the base of the canyon to check out Lower Calf Creek Falls, a hike along our route that had been recommended to us the day before. Six miles round trip, the hike brought us even deeper into the canyon to a spectacular 160 ft two tier waterfall.
We gazed with admiration at mother nature’s handy work and a couple of us even got in for a dip (Brrrrr!!!). The hike was beautiful and we enjoyed stretching our legs and admired the latest patches of autumn aspen leaves. Between this hike and our ride through GSENM, we were left with a real sense of awe for this land, understanding of its designation, and why it is so deserving of continued and complete protection.
After the hike we climbed a 15% grade for about 3 miles to come out on what is known as the “Hogsback.” Once again the arduous climb was made more than worth it by the awaiting views (a rewardingly common theme we’ve found). The Hogsback is a spectacular stretch of highway 12 where the road travels over a narrow mesa spine with dramatic drops into deep canyons formed by the Calf and Boulder Creeks on either side.
After biking up and over the Hogsback, we met up with GSENM Partners Board Member Chris “Sage” Sorenson. Born and raised in southern Utah, folks call him Sage because he always smells of the desert sagebrush. As informal as on-the-road meetings can get, we met him on the side of the highway by a “large Boulder next to a dirt road” (Sage’s instructions) then wandered along the dirt road until we reached the edge of the canyon. Sage pulled four apples out of his truck, fresh from the apple tree growing in his yard, and we snacked as we chatted. From there, the five of us stood looking out over the canyon, warmly lit by the setting sun. The Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail we had just hiked was in the canyon far below, and Sage’s golden retriever, Lars, ran in circles around our legs and rolled around in the desert sand.
Sage started by recounting the history of the Monument. He told us folks were initially interested in the creation of GSENM because the land was being threatened by coal mining. The state of Utah wanted to sell off the land to various extractive companies. This added to the Monument’s controversy as it halted a coal mine project that could have provided jobs and revenue in an impoverished part of Utah.
On April 26, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order calling for the review of all National Monuments created since 1996, conveniently the same year GSENM was created. In his review of the Monument released last month, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke proposed revising the boundaries of the GSENM. Sage admitted he is concerned about Zinke’s proposals. He doesn’t think it is legally acceptable for a president to simply undo a Monument, especially when an overwhelming majority of Americans want them to remain as they are. In a recent comment period that gathered as many as 2.7 million comments about the future of American public lands, 99 percent of them expressed desire for the lands to continue to be protected as they are, or in some cases, even enlarged.
Politicians have been fighting this monument since it was first established, but those who are fighting to shrink the Monument are, as Sage stated, “in the pockets of extractive industries.” But coal, which can be found in the mountains and mesas of the GSENM, is not the future, and besides, there is not nearly enough of it in GSENM to make coal mining worth it. Sage believes these spectacular lands “belong to all of us, to all Americans”. And his love and passion for this place in particular was most evident when he said “every single inch of this 1.9 million acres deserves to be a monument in and of itself.”
Sage informed us that if an attempt is made by the current administration to shrink GSENM, GSE Partners is ready to lead litigation against it. The Antiquities Act allows a president to create a National Monument, however there is no precedent of a president shrinking, or even rescinding one. Many folks on the sides of the Monuments believe this is unlawful and is not strictly allowed by the Antiquities Act. So ultimately this is a decision that that courts will have to make.
“I just love nature,” Sage said. “Nature gives you a purpose. People who focus on money & material things.. they’re losing out. People have got to realize what’s at stake here.” He explained that this Monument is the last and largest undeveloped piece of land in the lower 48, truly the “last frontier” offering some of the last, real opportunities for solitude in our country. Local communities have benefited from its designation, too. There has been steady growth, rather than boom and bust, as is usually the case with mining and drilling exploits. Before the Monument, Escalante was suffering, timber was exploited, and the saw mill had closed. But now, the area sees a steady, manageable number of visitors each year, who stay in campgrounds, RV parks, and hotels, spend money at local restaurants, shops, and grocery stores, and visit the many outdoor resources provided by the Monument.
After wrapping up our meeting with Sage, we cruised a few more miles into the town of Boulder for the night. We had plans to dine with a woman named Mary Jane that evening. Mary Jane has lived in Boulder for most of her life, but grew up in our home state of Minnesota. She offered to feed us a meal when her brother Ron, who works at County Cycles in Roseville, MN, and helped us gear up for our trip, told her we’d be passing through Boulder. Mary Jane and her husband, Vard, are the family we previously mentioned who are not particularly fond of the GSENM. The two spoke passionately about the fact that this land had always been there & that nobody was going to come and take it away (ironically if monument status was lifted the land would become available to coal and other mining and the land would literally be carried away). They were upset because outside parties have been coming in and buying up grazing allotments and not using them for the intended purpose of grazing.
According to Mary Jane, the debate over the monument has had a real effect on their small town of Boulder. In a town of only 220 people, where community members often have to tell the mailman how to get to so-and-so’s house, this kind of debate can draw a real dividing line between neighbors. Mary Jane told us in the months previous, the issue had been increasingly contentious. She had passionate friends on both sides of the Monument debate and people who had been living peacefully together for years turned on one another. She called it “down right nasty.” Finally fed up with the name calling and insult throwing, she wrote a letter to the editor for the local paper saying that no matter where one stands on this issue, at the end of the day “[they] are all neighbors.” In the winter they will shovel each other out, and when push comes to shove, these people will be there for each other. Living in a small community you depend on one another, and you can’t let any issue drive you apart. We found that sentiment beautiful and her point was illustrated perfectly in our search to find a place to stay that evening.
It was dark when we left Mary Jane’s after dinner. We were tired and full, and were not interested in biking many more miles to find a campsite or other possible camping spot. Luckily, on our way to Mary Jane’s, a truck had passed us and the passengers inside, both young and strapping men, had waved to us. We had seen the truck pull into Mary Jane’s next-door-neighbor’s house. Mary Jane had informed us during dinner that the neighbor’s house was in fact employee housing for the Hell’s Backbone Grill, a local restaurant known world-wide. The owners of Hell’s Backbone have appeared on Oprah and their cookbook has made the New York Times Bestseller list.
Due to the proximity of the housing, and the friendly nature and good looks of the young lads who waved at us, we figured we might have a good shot at asking the residents if we could pitch our tent in their yard.
So under the stars and in the pitch black, we rolled up to Mary Jane’s neighbor’s place, hesitantly knocked on the door, and shivered as we waiting for an answer. A older man opened the door, and stood silently with his arms crossed as he listened to us explain our situation. After reaching the concluding question, “May we camp in your yard?”, he nodded affirmatively and nonchalantly. “Would you like to come in for some water? Stay on our couch? You hungry?” he said. “I’m Malcolm. I’m the house manager.”
“Sure,” we said. We stumbled into the house, and into a bright orange living room. Buddhist tapestries and paintings covered the walls. Exotic, green plants and elaborate candle holders sat on the coffee table and in window ledges. Lists of communal chores, house rules, and expectations hung on the walls in the kitchen. As we removed our shoes, Malcolm, originally from South Carolina, told us how he’d ended up in Boulder, managing the house, studying Chinese Medicine and martial arts, and practicing Buddhism. He told us the owners of Hell’s Backbone Grill are also Buddhist, and are not hesitant to take a political stance in their restaurant regarding the Monument. They strongly voice their support for it by giving out free “Save Grand Staircase Escalante Monument” stickers and informational pamphlets to their customers.
We were stunned by the incredibly striking differences between these two houses we’d found ourselves in that evening, the two of which were no more than 300 yards apart. Despite their proximity and the fact that they were located in the same small town, they appeared to be world’s apart: politically, culturally, even structurally. But both homes knew the importance of and expressed respect and appreciation for all town members, no matter what side of the issues they stood on.
Before we left Boulder the next morning, we knew we had to experience this famous Hell’s Backbone Grill. While we devoured delicious potato pancakes, sausage gravy, eggs and coffee cake, an older couple sitting at the table next to us, for whom we had taken a picture for the precious day on our hike to the waterfall, said they admired our adventure and the cause for which we were riding. They told us that their children had once hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and had been treated well by “trail angels” along the way. They wanted to do the same for us, and generously offered to pay for our meal for which we were enormously grateful.
After stuffing ourselves silly, we set out to climb Boulder Mountain, going slow and steady so as to not lose our breakfast. We made it up and over, descending down to Torrey, where we ate lunch and turned east onto Hwy 24 to get to Capitol Reef National Park.
The town of Fruita is situated right inside the park, near the Fremont River, and used to be a small Mormon farming community of ten families. Using irrigation from the river, the town became known for its extensive orchards of apples, pears and peaches. In 1937, the area around Fruita was established as the Capitol Reef National Monument in order to protect a 100-mile long wrinkle in the Earth’s crust known as the Waterpocket Fold. This geologic formation is 65 million years old and was caused by continental plates colliding and folding over each other. Over time, this uplift has been weathered and eroded by water and the forces of gravity, leaving behind magnificent cliffs, canyons, domes, spires, and arches. Park visitation increased steadily and the National Park Service (NPS) began to buy out all the private land parcels in Fruita to expand the Monument. In 1971, President Nixon signed an act to make Capitol Reef a National Park. With the exception of a one room schoolhouse, the Gifford house and barn, and the fruit orchards, most of the structures in Fruita are gone and have been replaced by the park visitor center and campground. The NPS maintains the orchards and visitors are allowed to pick the fruit for free.
We certainly took advantage of the free apple picking, using the tools provided to reach up and grab the last few apples hanging in the tops of the trees. The season was almost over, but we got quite a few off the trees and took them with us for some tasty snacks along the road.
A nice couple on vacation from Colorado let us share their campsite with them since the campground was full. It was one of the nicest National Park campgrounds in which we we have stayed. The fall colors certainly made everything seem more romantic and beautiful.
The next morning, as we rode out of Capitol Reef, we stopped to see some amazingly detailed and well-preserved rock petroglyphs. It was a chilly morning but as the sun rose over the canyon walls, it warmed us and shed light over the stunning landscape.
We had a long day ahead of us, with 89 miles to cover. It was a difficult trek with a couple team members half functioning due to sickness, and the ride definitely took a toll on our bodies. Despite some runny noses, we managed to keep on trucking and the gorgeous landscape in front of us helped raise the mood. At one point, we passed through the southern tip of Canyonlands National Park that is continuous with Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
We zoomed down a breathtaking road that wound through a steep red rock canyon, continuing on and on around each bend for what seemed like forever.
We descended around the northeastern part of Lake Powell, biking around one section of the massive lake in order to reach Hite, which mostly consisted of a ranger station, employee housing and a small campground near the water’s edge.
After camping by Lake Powell, we made our way out of Glen Canyon Recreation Area and unknowingly crossed into the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument. Established by President Obama in December 2016, a month before he left office, the monument protects 1.35 million acres of land in the San Juan county of Utah.
Due to its recent designation, there are no entrance signs on the roads, no trailhead signs, no campgrounds, and no visitor center. Therefore, we later learned that we were actually within the park boundary as we biked along a winding hilly road at the base of some beautiful red rock canyons. There were several noticeable rock structures nearby rising high above us, including Jacob’s Chair, the Cheese Box, the Toe, the Needle, and Fry Point just to name a few. The most famous of these is the Bears Ears, a pair of mesas rising side by side above the Colorado Plateau for which the monument was named.
We spent a chilly night at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station and the next morning, went on a hike with the chair of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, Marc Thomas, his wife, Judy, and 14 of their friends. We got a permit for the Moon House Ruins trail, which allows a maximum of 20 people to hike it each day. The trail leads to an ancient multi-room cliff dwelling in McCloyd Canyon that dates back to 1200 A.D.
The archaeological site is known for a celestial painting in white depicting the full and crescent moons on opposite sides of an interior room within the Pueblo structure. Unfortunately, over the years, almost all of the artifacts have disappeared from their original locations due to people taking them or unknowingly posting pictures of artifacts, which are traceable by GPS for others to find. Looting and damage to archaeological remains is a big issue in Bears Ears. In 2009, there were 24 individuals in Blanding charged with stealing, selling and trading American Indian artifacts from nearby ancestral lands. A well known doctor who had long served the white and native community committed suicide the day after he was charged, shocking the small town. The case provoked a sharp backlash and renewed feelings of resentment toward the federal government that have long been present for a variety of reasons. In addition, in the towns surrounding Bears Ears, there has been local concern over the size of the monument and future grazing and extraction opportunities. There has been division among families, causing those on either side of the issue to avoid each other.
Despite the fact that the hike was only 1.5 miles round trip, it took quite a long time to get through because it required going down to the canyon floor and back up the other side in order to reach the structures tucked away in a rock ledge. From afar, the ruins were very unimposing on the landscape, made entirely of rocks and sticks with clay as a natural mortar. When we got up close to them, the rooms were very small and had only one opening in which to enter and exit. The Moon House was just one of several structures along the same rock ledge in the canyon, although it was the only multi-room Pueblo. You were not allowed to enter the interior rooms, however, the common area was open to explore. It was humbling to be able to witness these amazing structures and imagine what life would have been like when these areas were inhabited.
After the hike, we piled into trucks and returned along the rough 8 mile dirt road to the ranger station where we set out on our bikes for a late afternoon ride to Blanding. These 35 miles within Bears Ears took us along some of the most gorgeous scenery we’ve seen yet, including passing over the 80-mile long Comb Ridge.
We arrived in Blanding right after sunset and spent the night in an RV park there after restocking on groceries.
On Day 41, we headed south toward the small town of Bluff, along the border of the Navajo Nation. There, we met with Erica from Friends of Cedar Mesa to discuss Bears Ears and the recent threats the Monument is facing. Due to how recent the monument was created, there is no formal management plan in place yet. The recent proposal by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to shrink Bears Ears has caused there to be a delay in moving forward with any sort of permanent plans for the monument. There is a rumor that Zinke plans on shrinking the monument to one tenth of its current size, only 120,000 acres. After Zinke visited Bears Ears and took an aerial tour of the area, he held only closed meetings about the monument, preventing any opening for public comment. Until Zinke releases a public statement about exactly how much he plans to shrink Bears Ears, it is difficult to speculate on what the future will hold. In addition, the recent publicity surrounding the controversial Monument has caused visitation to increase four fold, but without the proper funding and management plans in place, the area is not ready to sustain this amount of tourism.
As stated in the Presidential Proclamation for Bears Ears, the area “constitutes one of the densest and most significant cultural landscapes in the United States.” Within the park boundaries are an estimated 100,000 archeological sites, including sacred sites for five different sovereign nations of Native Americans: Zuni Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute and Uintah Mountain Ute. These nations all have ancestral ties to the land and came together as the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (BEITC) to lead the movement to create the monument. As a result, Bears Ears is co-managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service and BEITC. Initially, BEITC proposed that President Obama use his executive powers under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to protect 1.9 million acres of ancestral land as Bears Ears. However, this entire area was not covered in the Presidential Proclamation for the designation of the monument. Instead, only 1.35 million acres were protected, leaving some land in state hands in case extractive industries proposed future contracts.
During our time in southern Utah, we learned so much about the extremely complex issues surrounding Bears Ears and GSENM. With the future of these two monuments very much up in the air, environmental groups and activists all over the region are gearing up for what might be a long and arduous legal battle. We feel it was an honor to be able to witness firsthand these contentious public lands and be able to speak with people whom these issues directly affect. Not only is it important to understand all sides of the issues but also to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes so that we can fully address the problem and properly inform our audience. It is time that those who truly care about these issues take a stand and are willing to listen to others with whom we might not necessarily agree. The door has been opened to people looking for a solution to one side of the issue and slammed in the face of those looking for a compromise. Instead of always saying no to those we disagree with, let’s try to say yes and find some middle ground.