A Christmas wish for the Bears Ears

122017 OUT column Moke Dugway

The Moki Dugway snakes 1,100 feet down the south face of Cedar Mesa in southeast Utah a few mile south of  the Bears Ears National Monument. Built in 1958 by a mining company to haul uranium ore to the mill in Mexican Hat, the road includes three miles of well-maintained unpaved road and is passable by passenger cars.

With Christmas close at hand, that “short list” of things to do no longer seems so short. Among all the buying and spending and gift wrapping (and calling the taxidermist to check on that elk shoulder mount), there still is that matter of “wishing upon a star.”

Those of us in western Colorado are blessed with stars aplenty to wish upon, although skiers and boarders and those who cater to such might be wishing for an overcast and white Christmas Eve.

Wishes. Elk hunters might be wishing for a lucky draw and hoping Santa drops off a few extra preference points. Anglers might be dreaming of a spring runoff strong and fast, finishing by the time the salmonflies are flying over the Gunnison River.

But most of us who live in fly-over country are wishing for this:

That those who represent us in the legislative halls, especially those sequestered in the concrete canyons of Washington, D.C., never forget what it is that makes this land so special.

And why this region we call home needs added protection.

122017 OUT Column Bears Ears

Geologic place names seldom get it as right as it with the Bears Ears, twin buttes of Wingate sandstone on the north edge of Cedar Mesa. They also lend their name to one of America’s newest national monuments, one that faces drastic changes at the hands of the Trump administration.

A canyon country (factual) Christmas tale: In the winter of 1879, leaving behind the rest of the Hole-In-The-Rock expedition, four brave men plunged into the complex slick-rock canyon country of southeast Utah, seeking a route to Montezuma Creek.

What initially was planned as an eight-day trek had become several times that when, on Christmas Day 1879, lost, out of food and surviving mostly on hope, they climbed an otherwise unremarkable point now known as Salvation Knoll on the north edge of Cedar Mesa.

From there, the scouts spotted the Blue (Abajo) Mountains, regaining their bearings and their hope.

The fascinating story of this Mormon expedition is well-documented and today travelers along Utah State Route 95 west of Blanding cross the scouts’ trail at mile marker 97. There, you can read historical markers and hike a short trail built by descendants of the Hole-In-The-Rock families to the top of Salvation Knoll where you are reminded that all is not lost, even when conditions seem dire.

It may not be a coincidence that Salvation Knoll is within a few miles of the Bears Ears, those curiously identical buttes of Wingate sandstone that for uncounted centuries have kept travelers on their right path.

We often share the sentiments of Norwood-based author Craig Childs, whose astutely contemplative writing on the interplay of nature and humans has secured him a large and faithful audience throughout western Colorado and elsewhere.

In a recent Facebook post, Childs penned an open letter to Rep. Scott Tipton, representing Colorado’s Congressional Third District, imploring Tipton “to remember home. Think about what it means to stand on dusty ground, to feel what is over every horizon.”

Much of what Childs was speaking touched on the recent decision by Pres. Donald Trump to reduce drastically the size of Bears Ears and Escalante-Grand Staircase national monuments.

In the case of the Bears Ears, the acreage is to be slashed by 85 percent to just more than 200,000 acres while carving out of protected status hundreds if not thousands of fragile archeological sites representing the cultural heritage of southeastern Utah.

The long view

A view across Cedar Mesa, where in the winter of 1879-1880 an expedition from the Church of Latter Day Saints carved a path from Escalante to Mexican Hat. It’s been reported that during the arduous six-month journey, no one died and two babies were born.

Reflecting on Childs’ words, it’s clear the deep-seated sentiments he invokes are not limited solely to the dismantling of these mostly wild places where ancient peoples once roamed and where their descendants today live and worship. He also expresses concern for the entire “wealth of public and protected lands” across the West that safeguard natural and cultural resources for tomorrow’s generations.

As Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, recently said, “the changes to the two Utah monuments would negatively impact key fish and wildlife habitat, reduce outdoor opportunities important to sportsmen and critical to local economies, and undermine a bedrock conservation law, the Antiquities Act, that has enabled the long-term protection of millions of acres.”

Among those protected resources are landcapes unparalleled in North America, from the serpentine Moki Dugway, snaking off the precipitous face of Cedar Mesa a few miles north of Mexican Hat, Utah, to the contrast of desert slot canyons and alpine meadows a few miles apart.

This land of elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, black bear, mountain lions and other wildlife also is home to hikers, climbers, river-runners, birders, bikers and star-gazers.

And for all that, this year’s Christmas wishes must carry a special wish for those who make the ultimate decisions of how this and all public land is managed.

So we again turn to Craig Childs, who noted that Tipton and his colleagues must find Washington D.C. “consuming at times, (making it) easy to forget where you came from and what deeply, viscerally matters to the people of the West.

“I admire anyone who can go into the fray like you and do the hard work, but don’t get lost out there,” Childs cautions.

“As you lean toward bills that would limit our ability to protect lands through the Antiquities Act or otherwise, I ask you to remember home. … Remember where you came from, and all of us out here on this bluebird morning, glad for what we have.”

(Ed. note: The comments from Craig Childs were used with his permission. His most-recently published book, Flying Home, is now available.)

 

 

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Outdoor retailers continue fight to keep public lands in public hands

CEdar Mesa pictographs BLM

The 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah protects one of most significant cultural landscapes in the United States. Photo: Bob Wick, BLM

As the Trump administration continues its push to reduce or eliminate 26 national monuments, a move viewed by outdoors enthusiasts as a blow against all public lands, many outdoor products companies are taking a stand in defense of the monuments and  voicing support for public lands. Read the story here.

And don’t forget to enjoy your public heritage Saturday, Sept. 30, on National Public Lands Day. It’s a free days at federal recreation sites and many state sites. If you want to take an active role in your lands, many private, state and federal organizations are sponsoring demonstrations and volunteer on-the-ground work days. Call your favorite group or check the National Environmental Education Foundation website for a list of opportunites.

Among those groups getting dirty on Sept. 30 is the Grand Mesa Nordic Council, which

skyway trail sign

One of the new trail signs gracing  the Grand Mesa Nordic trails. Photo: GMNC

recently received a $6,000 grant from the Grand Junction REI store as part of the partnership between the two. Some of the grant is paying for the dozens of new signs marking trailheads and trail junctions along the estimated 31 miles of trails and part of the money will help pay for ski-trail grooming, said GMNC president Winslow Robertson.

“REI has been a great to work with and this grant will help us to continue to improve the skiing experience,” Robertson said. “It costs us about $4,000 per week during the season to groom the trails and this will augment the money from GMNC members.”

The Grand Mesa Nordic system is one of the few in the U.S. not charging a use fee.

The Nordic Council and REI are collaborating for a trail work day Sept. 30 on Grand Mesa to mark National Public Lands Day. Volunteers will be putting put up new trails signs and clearing trails of branches, rocks and debris. Information is available here.