In 1996, President Clinton set aside nearly 1.9 million acres of remote land in southern Utah, land so remote it was the last to be mapped in the country. In 2017, President Trump reduced those protections, cutting the size of the land set aside in half. But what is the story of Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument? Why should we care about any of this? And if we do care, how can we see it and how can we help?
The story of Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument actually begins in 1906, when President Teddy Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law. The Antiquities Act, still in force today, allows a sitting US President to designate and protect national monuments from existing federal land, setting the areas aside to preserve their unique natural, cultural, or scientific features. The power in it is virtually boundless, and has been used by nearly every American administration since that year.
(There are a couple of exceptions codified into the Antiquities Act at later dates. The creation of Grand Teton National Park in 1950 – and earlier use to designate Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943 – were accompanied by a compromise that never again could the Antiquities Act be used in Wyoming. In addition, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act requires Congressional ratification for uses in that state. Beyond that, though, a President can – solely at his/her discretion – set aside federal lands for protection.)
In 1996, during his reelection campaign, President Clinton set aside the largest – to that point; the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument of 2006 is significantly larger at more than 600,000 square miles – area of land under the Antiquities Act, creating Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument to protect three main features: the Grand Staircase, layers of sedimentary rock that form the features of Zion and Bryce Canyon and stretch all the way to the Grand Canyon; the Kaiparowits Plateau, home to some of the most scientifically important dinosaur fossil finds; and the Canyons of the Escalante.
Immediately, the declaration was marred in controversy. For starters, President Clinton made the announcement from Arizona, not from Utah. The monument was also created over the objections of even Utah’s Democratic Congressional representation, as the entire delegation was concerned about the size and scope of the land chosen. Some parts of what would become Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument were designated to a state bureau when Utah became a state in 1896, and though those were exchanged for federal lands elsewhere in the state, it didn’t satisfy everyone. Further controversy stemmed from Utah’s mandate for constructing and maintaining roads through federal land.
All of this led to a series of lawsuits, where the Supreme Court ultimately held that a President’s powers under the Antiquities Act are broad and lawful, and Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument became the largest gem in the portfolio of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The lands were now safe from further development and mining claims.
In 2017, President Trump ordered that the size of Grand Staircase – Escalante be reduced by nearly half, along with the sizes of several other national monuments (most notably an 85% reduction in Bears Ears National Monument) to open the lands specifically for mining claims. Conservation groups filed suit, the basis of their claims being that the Antiquities Act has no provision for revoking protected status, though the Trump Administration maintained that the power to create and destroy must necessarily go hand in hand. No final verdict had been issued by the 2020 election, and President Biden has declared his intention to drop opposition to the suits and keep the monuments as designated, though as of this writing that hasn’t happened in an official capacity.
All of this seems worlds away from the lives of most Americans, so why should any of us care what happens to Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument? I recently drove along the southern end of the monument, from Hurricane, UT, the gateway to Zion National Park, to Page, AZ. Anyone making this drive along US Highway 89 will be awed by the colors of the rocks and mountains just north of the highway. This is the Grand Staircase, stratification dating back hundreds of millions of years. It is beautiful, layers of red and white tracing across the land and contrasting with green trees and blue skies. It is one of those places where each new bend in the road comes with a gasp at just how incredible this planet can be. And visible stratification like this exists in few other places on Earth. It gives scientists a real opportunity to study the planet as it was in earlier eras, studies that have recently borne tremendous fruit.
Dinosaurs have fascinated people since they were first discovered, seemingly remnants of mythological creatures. And no dinosaur has so captured the hearts and minds of humans than the king of them all, Tyrannosaurus Rex. In Jurassic Park, we see T-Rex running after a car, a solo beast sprinting down a road after its prey. Well, thanks to discoveries made here, at Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument, we now know that this scene could not happen as written. Grand Staircase – Escalante’s Kaiprowits Plateau region is home to the Rainbows and Unicorns Quarry, so named for the near-constant source of wondrous discoveries found there, in what has been called the best record of late Cretaceous terrestrial life on the planet. Recent discoveries of T-Rex skeletons in groups have proven definitively that these amazing dinosaurs actually hunted in groups! More fascinatingly, they needed to do so because recent analysis of skeletons found here have shown that a human could easily outrun a Tyrannosaur, which was only capable of slow and methodical walking. The number of discoveries waiting for scientists here is exciting, a huge reason this place deserves to remain protected from mining and development.
Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument is huge, and therefore difficult to experience in its entirety. On my past trip, I was able to barely scratch the surface of its southern tip, land subject to the Trump reduction. Walking through a dry slot canyon as part of the Toadstool Hoodoos hike, I found it hard to believe that anyone could look at this and see it as not worth protecting. Here the colors of the Grand Staircase are at your fingertips, literally, beckoning to be appreciated. Here, softer sediments have eroded away in the sometimes-harsh winds, leaving harder rock exposed in toadstool-shaped formations. If even I, a 40 year old professional traveler, am amazed, just think of the look on a child’s face at discovering this for the first time. That’s the legacy we want for future generations, not the crumbling of the rocks as we exploit our planet further in search of mineral wealth.
So how can we help this place? The first, and most important step, is to make a call to your local representatives. Tell them you stand with the natural world and future generations by standing with Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. Keep pressure on President Biden to live up to his campaign promise to restore the monument to its full size. And then come visit. Come experience the colors for yourself.
Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument is an incredible place, both for its natural beauty and for the value it has for science. Shrouded in controversy, its future is far from assured. But we can all help make certain that a place this amazing is kept secure for all time.
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