In December 2016, when then-President Obama created Bears Ears National Monument, Utah found itself back at the center of a long-simmering controversy that was about to boil over: how should the vast tracts of public land in the American West be managed? Set aside for recreation and environmental and cultural preservation, or sold off to private interests to promote economic growth in local communities and at the state level?
The Public Lands Controversy
With so much public land – over 60% of Utah’s land is controlled by the federal government – it's not surprising that land use and stewardship is a contentious issue. Open a newspaper or listen in on the chatter at the local diner and you'll soon see that this is the singular thread that dominates the political and environmental debates seen across the state – and throughout much of the West.
In December 2017, just one year after the creation of Bears Ears, the Trump administration declared its intent to shrink the new monument by 85%, further fanning the flames of national discord. And no wonder – Bears Ears has come to represent many of the hot-button topics in American political debates: federal versus state power, the undue influence of industry lobbyists among politicians, racism, and climate change versus natural resource extraction.
But despite the controversy surrounding Bears Ears, there has actually always been bipartisan consensus on the need to protect the area: the sticking point remains how much land, and who gets control. The monument, under Obama's original proposal, splits management between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM; thus allowing grazing rights for ranchers and ATV use on designated trails, both sore points for environmentalists), the US Forest Service, and a coalition of five Native American tribes, who had long petitioned the government for its creation. Bears Ears is the location of some 100,000 Native American archaeological and cultural sites, some dating back to the 11th century, and looting and degradation have steadily increased over the past decade.
Utah representatives Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop had previously introduced a bill in Congress that would protect some of the area in exchange for developing the rest for natural mineral and gas extraction and, critically, voiding the federal government’s power to create any future monuments in seven Utah counties. Neither Republicans, Democrats nor the Native American coalition got behind the bill, however.
Taking a Stand
Following President Trump’s election, Utah senator Orrin Hatch's office submitted a redrawn proposal of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante boundaries to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, in order to facilitate the extraction of all natural gas, oil, coal and uranium deposits. Secretary Zinke, after his much-debated review of 27 US national monuments, ultimately recommended that the president significantly reduce the size of both Utah monuments per Senator Hatch's recommendations.
Native Americans immediately condemned the declaration as yet another betrayal by the American government and proceeded to take the federal government to court (where the case is likely to stay for some time). But even before the legal battle had begun, recreationalists, running the gamut from hikers, athletes, hunters and anglers to the rapidly growing outdoor industry, had taken their own stand.
In a pointed letter, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard condemned the government’s preference for industry profit on public lands, reminding naysayers that the outdoor recreation industry contributes $12 billion annually and 122,000 jobs to the state. Patagonia’s subsequent boycott of Salt Lake City’s huge Outdoor Retailer Show took the rest of the outdoor industry with them. Within days, the convention pulled out of Utah permanently, relocating to Colorado.
Loved to Death?
Regardless of the political battle, one thing is clear – everyone loves American national parks. Visitation is up record numbers (almost doubling in many parks) and federal funding is down, putting a considerable strain on the most popular destinations. In Zion, for example, the challenges are numerous: traffic jams to enter the park in summer can be up to an hour long. There are only 1200 parking spots, yet some 10,000 daily visitors. And then there are the toilets – like parking spots, there simply aren’t enough of them.
Zion installed a park shuttle system in 2000 to ease traffic congestion, but even that is under severe strain, with some 6.3 million riders in 2017. Finding a solution to increased visitation has not been easy: proposals have included increasing entrance fees by over 100% during peak season, installing a reservation system for entrance to the park, or, alternatively, installing a permit system for entrance to certain trails. As of 2018, no decisions had been made.