Does Utah Need a Sixth National Park?
While it may be unpopular to say to an audience of outdoor nature lovers like myself, I’m against a new proposal to carve a sixth National Park for Utah from a portion of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I was also against the creation of Bear’s Ears National Monument, and had I been around Utah at the time I would’ve been against the Clinton Administration’s last-minute designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante, too. But that was before I lived and recreated in the West, so I was ignorant of the ramifications of National Monument designation. I was therefore happy when the current administration reduced the size of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, which took place to the howls of environmentalists across the nation.
As a self-proclaimed outdoor lover, why would I feel that way? My answer is simple, and based on two negative consequences of special public land designation: burdensome and unnecessary rules and regulations, and suffocating popularity.
Contrary to popular belief, both of these National Monuments were already public land prior to being redesignated. Declaring each a National Monument didn’t magically create public land that wasn’t already public and available for recreation, sightseeing and more. Instead, turning BLM land into a National Monument just more strictly regulates how it can be used, and not only for those who would lease the land for natural resource extraction leases, as many proponents of monument designation will argue. Roads that have been in use by both visitors and the local population for over a century get closed to vehicle traffic, actually restricting who can access that land, and by what means. Local ranchers can no longer graze their herds upon those lands. Areas get arbitrarily cordoned off and require a permit lottery for hiking access. Seemingly innocuous activities like aerial filming with a drone get prohibited — even though you might be the only person standing for 25 miles in any direction.
I love my public land, and I love being able to recreate in it. I prefer to be able to do so with as few rules restricting my recreation as possible, which is why you’ll seldom find me camping anywhere with the word “campground” in its name. I want to hike a mountain with my dogs, strike out across a lonely desert, or drop into a deep slot canyon without being told when, where and how I can do so.
Now, I’m somewhat of an extrovert and I love meeting people, but I want to encounter as few people as possible while I’m out there. I can make new friends when I get back to town, thank you very much. How many people had even heard of Bears Ears before it became embroiled in a debate over National Monument designation? What creates a bigger risk to the antiquities contained within its borders, a test well dug here and there (and nowhere near said antiquities) or a rancher grazing cattle, or tens of thousands of people each year visiting the very antiquities that the monument designation is intended to protect?
Outdoor industry companies rebelled over the Utah state legislature’s attempt to maintain access to public lands within its own borders. The final shot in that rebellion was the industry’s departure from Salt Lake City as the home of its semi-annual Outdoor Retailer trade show, which brought tens of millions of dollars of revenue to the state and its business people each year. Rep. Chris Stewart’s proposal to carve a national park out of part of Grand Staircase-Escalante is designed to find some common ground in the contentious debate over the recent reductions to National Monuments in Utah. However, National Park designation takes these two phenomena of popularity — rules and crowds — and multiples them a thousandfold.
With the current state of Utah’s five National Parks, where overcrowding can make them positively unpleasant to visit at times, and where I’m not even allowed to dispersed camp or hike with my dogs, I’m loathe to support any effort to take even more of my state’s public land and turn it into Disney Utah.