For those of us who recharge our batteries by spending time outside—whether by climbing, hiking, riding, running or merely sitting—public lands constitute sacred space. Designed to protect our nation’s most valuable cultural, historical and environmental assets, monuments, forests, parks and wilderness areas also safeguard the last, irreplaceable, bits of solitude in an overcrowded world. However, we may lose some of these special places if politicians succeed in their efforts to wage war and roll back protections on public lands across the nation. This is unthinkable for anyone who needs nature to thrive, and values the sanity and serenity it delivers to hectic lives. But the threat—to countless gems of invaluable public land—is real. Here’s an intro to three under fire in our own backyard.
Bears Ears National Monument, Utah
What It Is: A 1.3-million-acre monument in southeastern Utah designated to safeguard ecologically valuable wildlands and cultural sites that are sacred to Native Americans.
Why It’s Special: This vast maze of red rock canyons and sandstone cliffs harbors more than 100,000 Native American archeological sites. It also encompasses an ecologically significant landscape that ranks high in connectivity and biodiversity—especially due to its concentration of rare and irreplaceable species. At least 18 species listed under the Endangered Species Act live within the borders of Bears Ears. Plus, stellar rock climbing, canyon hikes and adventurous backpacking routes make it a recreational hot spot.
Why It’s Threatened: Countless cases of looting, vandalism and damage—including names carved into rock art and even disturbances of human remains—are destroying one of America’s great cultural and archaeological landscapes. As a result of visitor misuse, inadequate staffing, mismanaged recreational use and potential energy development, the National Trust for Historic Preservation deemed the area one of the country’s 11 endangered historical places. In April, President Trump ordered a review of 27 national monuments designated since 1996, encompassing more than 100,000 acres each—despite the fact that 96 percent of public commenters support these national monuments. Bears Ears’ monument designation is high on the chopping block, despite the fact that President Obama acted largely in response to Utah businesses and citizens and an unprecedented coalition of 30 Native American tribes who joined forces to protecting the place. Bears Ears is at even greater risk since Utah politicians, including the governor, also advocate for the overturn of federally managed and owned public lands to the state.
What You Can Do: Participate in protection efforts at bearsearscoalition.org/action
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
What It Is: A1.9 million-acre monument in southcentral Utah designated by President Clinton in 1996 to protect abundant and rich historic, archeological, paleontological and recreational resources, and to block a planned coal mine that would have irrevocably altered the landscape.
Why It’s Special: Spanning five unique ecosystems, the country’s largest national monument is a wonderland of geologic complexity complete with a sweeping maze of slot canyons, sandy washes and cliffs dotted with arches, towering monoliths, natural bridges and desert rivers and creeks. Grand Staircase-Escalante also shelters important historic sites including Native American rock art, camps, kivas and dwellings, as well as the renowned Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, used by Mormon pioneers. Stepping back even further, teams have excavated dinosaur skeletons here, including 21 never-before-seen species and the remains of an 81-million-year-old tyrannosaurus (the oldest recovered).
Why It’s Threatened: Though its original designation in 1996 was deemed necessary to protect artifacts, conserve natural resources, and preserve the heritage of Native Americans and Mormon pioneers, Trump, supported by a delegation of Utah politicians, seems committed to emascualting the monument by carving out a huge chunk of Grand Staircase-Escalante for coal mining.
What You Can Do: Participate in protection efforts at suwa.org/help-save-grand-staircase-escalante-national-monument.
Sunset Roadless Area, Colorado
What It Is: Within the Gunnison National Forest and next to the iconic West Elk Wilderness Area, this untouched landscape encompasses aspen and spruce-fir forests just 40 miles from Aspen.
Why It’s Special: An untrammled oasis in coal country, the Sunset Roadless Area’s lush forests provide important habitat for elk, deer, bear and imperiled lynx. The rugged and remote Sunset Trail, which traverses the area, also draws hikers, backpackers and hunters seeking deep solitude.
Why It’s Threatened: Utilizing a loophole in the 2001 Roadless Rule, the Trump administration is pushing ahead with plans to approve Arch Coal’s permit to expand mining operations into 1,700 acres of roadless wildlands. Arch Coal would construct more than six miles of roads, build 48 drilling pads and extract over 17 million tons of coal, venting methane directly into the atmosphere. The West Elk mine was already the Colorado’s single largest industrial source of methane, a major contributor to climate pollution, from 2013 to 2015 in Colorado.
What You Can Do: Participate in protection efforts at earthjustice.org/features/sunset-roadless-area-climate.
Stay up to date on threats and ways you can work to stop them at elevationoutdoors.com/takeactiontoprotectpubliclandsinyourbackyard.