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.)

 

 

Advertisements

The battle over the future of a land of water and wilderness

BWCA fishing time

Lukas Leaf, far right, settles into his canoe as he and other anglers head out for an evening fishing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. Leaf is the outreach coordinator for Sportsmen for the Boundary waters, a group campaigning against a proposed copper/nickel mine near the BWCA border. Photo and story by Dave Buchanan

Tim Barton, a guide and outfitter for Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, Minn., likely knows as well as anyone the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a 1.09-million-acre gem of public land in far-north Minnesota that stretches for 150 miles along the U.S./Canada border.

Barton, 31, has been journeying through the Boundary Waters since he was “6 or 7, I guess,” he said. ““By the time I was 13 I was guiding trips for my dad.”

This is a land that’s mostly water, where most of the estimated 1,100 lakes, spruce-dotted islands and rivers with white-water falls are accessible only by paddle or portage.

It’s also a land of contrasts. At night, an immense bowl of sky showers you with a king’s ransom of stars dancing across dark skies like a million candles to light your way, and in the day that expanse of sky cradles endless expanses of pristine water and an ever-changing vista of every imaginable shade of green, this month sprinkled with red, carmine and gold, the first changing of the leaves.

You hear the wind in the spruce, a loon’s distant whistle, the grunt of moose, maybe even the howl of a wolf.

Barton tried living in Colorado for a while but found irresistible the lure of the north woods.

“I couldn’t live anywhere else,” he said.

Last week, thanks to the efforts of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Barton and fellow guide (and forager par excellence) Lukas Leaf, outreach coordinator for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, herded four writers and photographers on a four-day trip into the bones of the BWCAW.

Thee, with a captive/receptive audience, Barton and Leaf preached the gospel of what the Boundary Waters means to the area’s estimated quarter-million annual visitors and the importance of saving this wilderness from the threat of a sulfide-ore copper/nickel mine proposed to be dug in the Boundary Waters watershed.

split supprt from MPR

Split emotions are evident during a recent hearing about an underground mine proposed near the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. Courtesy Minnesota Public Radio.

Northern Minnesota is mining country, its past forged with a complex history and the millions of tons of iron ore dug from the ground and shipped to mills and foundries, many of them on the shores of Lake Superior less than 100 miles to the southeast. Many of those mines have closed, often due to competition from foreign ores and depressed national markets.

There still are many people in Ely and elsewhere who dream of the return of well-paying mining jobs.They are well-meaning and serious about what the mine could provide mean to the economic future of the area and their families.

But mining iron ore isn’t the same as mining copper ore with its sulfurous residue, Leaf said one night as the campfire burned low. One rusts, the other acidifies, and a spill into a river can quickly change a vibrant river into a lifeless stream.

And I’ve seen the destruction a failed acid-leach mine tailing pile can wreak on an environment. Colorado’s mining history (e.g., Leadville, Del Norte, Silverton) is replete with what happens when a tailing dam fails or acid drainage leaches into a nearby stream or river.

“Over time, the structural integrity and the general competency of all tunnels and underground mine workings will continue to deteriorate without regular maintenance,” states an Environmental Protection Agency handout written about the Leadville acid mining drainage.

Today, tourism, mostly the year-round lure of the Boundary Waters and adjacent Quetico Provincial Park in Canada, is the one of region’s leading economic drivers albeit less (by about a third) of mining’s economic impact.

In 2016, the federal government said it would not renew two key mineral leases which had expired in 2013, saying the proposed mine posed too great a threat to the Boundary Waters.

But that was before the Trump administration came to power. Now, Twin Metals Mining has renewed its fight to have the leases renewed, feeling the chances are better with the de-regulation attitude popular in Washington, D.C.

Currently, the leases are being reviewed. The public comment period closed last month.