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Outdoor Recreationists, the ranchers of tomorrow?


Photo credit: Mattias Fredriksson,

Most recreationists who are even slightly aware of land management issues on public lands are familiar with the Bundys and their stand against the government. It is safe to say that most think the Bundys are mistaken in their approach to public lands. It is equally safe to say that none would put themselves in the same category as the Bundys. Recently; however, the House Committee on Natural Resources voted to amend the Wilderness Act to allow bicycles in wilderness areas at the behest of some in the mountain biking community.

Ted Stoll, founder and executive director of the California-based Sustainable Trails Coalition, who is the author of this bill, has been seeking out help from the very representatives actively trying to take public lands – and why wouldn’t he go to the representatives who value wilderness areas the least? While Stoll and his supporters followed the legislative process and did it the legal way, in contrast to how the Bundys have been doing it, their efforts to mine the ground of protected wilderness landscapes, whether they intended it or not, are providing the first in-roads for opportunists seeking similar access with designs of their own.

In 1960 Wallace Stegner wrote what has come to be known as The Wilderness Letter. It was written to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission regarding recreation in wilderness. In it he states that recreation has no more to do with wilderness than it does with churches or with the “American Dream” and argued against recreation in wilderness areas because the idea of wild places existing was more valuable than peoples’ access to recreational experiences in them.

StegnerHe went on to explain how the wild landscape of our country built and forged our national character making us who we are, giving us quiet and solitude from the industrial and technological world we created, and that wilderness, however impractical to some, provides blessings of a spiritual kind to those who enter, and can calm those who simply contemplate it.

Our national identity and character is without question linked to the land. The expansion westward shaped the people of this Nation as surely as the Revolution did; it’s in our blood to roam and get caught up in the vast landscape of our country. People not born here but who choose the United States as home can sense it and feel and immerse themselves in it as well.

Stegner said, “The American experience has been the confrontation by old peoples and cultures of a world as new as if it had just risen from the sea. That gave us our hope and our excitement, and the hope and excitement can be passed on to newer Americans, Americans who never saw any phase of the frontier. But only so long as we keep the remainder of our wild as a reserve and a promise–a sort of wilderness bank.”

We should not forget our history or the untamed land from which it grew; and in remembering, we should fight to preserve and protect it.

Our protection should come from a place of gratitude. We enjoy rights, access, and a standard of living built on the experiences and lessons learned from those who came before us. Few of us have lived in a place or time where we could not drink the water, breathe the air, or eat the food. That is a blessing many in the world do not have.

Few of us have witnessed rivers catch on fire due to pollution, or watched thousands die as industrial smog settled over a city, or have had to live with the slow death caused by contamination or living down wind or down river of noxious poisons or toxins. Few of us have seen wildlife die slow and agonizing deaths from lead poisoning or pesticides. This is because people before us learned that “progress” has costs and passed legislation and implemented regulations in order to protect life and a basic standard of living. But that doesn’t mean it will stay this way.

We could be the ones who let it slip away. It is on us now to decide if we will maintain our collective civic conscience that ensures benefits for the good of all of us. Either our hard work or our complicity will shape the lives of those who come after us. As Gifford Pinchot said 100 years ago about our generation, “Our duty is to the future. To ensure that people in 2010 have a country of clean water, healthy forests, and open land will require battle with certain groups, namely the alliance between business and politics.” What will the generation 100 years from now have to say of what we passed on to them?

Today we stand witness to decisions being made by an administration that is undoing much of the hard work done by American pioneers – much of it the manifestation of the alliance between business and politics. We are witnessing a heretofore unseen zeal to slash and burn through historic and unprecedented ethical human progress, progress that revealed our values and character to the world, and it is being done without a care. It is such an overwhelming attack that it will take generations to fix and recover from if we do nothing to stop it – and that work will have to be done by our children and their children.

The policies being dismantled, and the decisions being made today, foretells a future where we might very well live to see access to our public lands disappear. Situations like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan might become the norm. We could see more rivers filled with mine tailings as the EPA is gutted and made inept. We may witness the death of our national forests as climate change moves into fifth gear while we do nothing. Our children’s children may never get the chance to see wild salmon, or hear the howl of a wolf, or experience a starry night because of what we do or do not do right now. We may witness and experience poverty – not just in terms of wealth – the likes of which most of us have never seen, least of which could be the loss of experiencing the last remnants of our wild lands as they were 100 years ago.

According to the Department of Interior, more than 500 million people visit National Parks and Monuments, wildlife refuges, and recreational sites annually. Additionally, the Forest Service statistics shows 173 million visits annually to national forests and 300 million visits to scenic byways and other travel routes near national forest lands. This says nothing of the development around the edges of public lands for people who want to live nearby.

It is safe to say that recreationists are the biggest users of public lands. Because of that, we need to be hyper aware of our impacts on the ephemeral and fragile ideals public lands are founded on and endeavor to protect them. Otherwise, we will be no better than others using public lands for their own selfish ends.

Hells Backbone Grill

Hell’s Backbone Grill, Boulder, UT – On the edge of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Photo credit TripAdvisor

We should also recognize the economic value our public lands provide to our governments, both national and local, and by proxy, the benefits those dollars bring to us. The Outdoor Recreation Association believes it will be the economy of the future. Right now tourism and recreation make up the fourth largest economic sector in the country with $887 billion in consumer spending annually, bringing in $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue, and $59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue. Where do those billions of dollars go? Defense spending? Funding NASA? Roads? Medicaid?

Furthermore, what these numbers do not show is the amount of revenue brought in by international tourists and recreationists. Those dollars are paid by non-citizens who through their spending directly benefit us in terms of tax revenues that we ourselves do not have to pay.

Some in the outdoor industry recognize this, but none are on the forefront of this battle more than Patagonia. If there is a growing movement, they are the tip of the spear. We are witnessing a David and Goliath show-down between Yvon Chouinard’s Patagonia and the Federal Government that has escalated into anti-Patagonia tweets from government officials and even an invitation to Yvon Chouinard to come to Washington by Rob Bishop (R-Utah).

Patagonia was the first to stand up to Utah politicians pursuing their anti-public lands agenda in a real way by pulling out of the Outdoor Retailer (OR) show when it was clear Utah representatives would not stop their crusade, causing many other companies to follow suit – eventually leading the OR show to another state.

Patagonia really committed itself when it publicly supported, funded, and advocated for the protection of Bears Ears National Monument. They did so for the climbing certainly, but they didn’t do it just for that – as is clear from the public statements the company has made. Patagonia is fighting for the continued experiences that can only be found in wild places– because as Stegner said, “If the abstract dream of human liberty and human dignity became, in America, something more than an abstract dream, mark it down at least partially to the fact that we were in subdued ways subdued by what we conquered.”

In other words, they are fighting for an American ideal – a uniquely American feeling, and the renewal that comes from immersing yourself in the land.

Yvon Chouinard young

Yvon Chouinard NA Wall, 1964 – Mountain Project

Chouinard is a living example of the combination between the American Dream and the American Spirit. He built a successful company out of the recreational sports he loves. He played in our wild places and helped pioneer gear for others to play in those wild places also – and now he is fighting for those places. Fishing, surfing, and climbing shaped the 70 year old man we see today. He is what Wallace Stegner described as, “…an American, insofar as he is new and different at all, is a civilized man who has renewed himself in the wild.”

Patagonia is an interesting paradox to behold because the outdoor retail industry has largely been an affable yet harmless group more interested in color combinations of zippers on puffy jackets than public policy, seemingly taking for granted the fight it took to get access to public lands that fuels much of their business; an industry “incapable of driving large-scale global change.” (The Big Business of Resist) Despite the potential, they hardly garnered a look from political players.


OR Salt Lake City, 2015

When I attended the OR show in 2015 I went to listen to former Secretary of Interior, Bruce Babbitt. I shook my head as I looked around the room at the roughly 300 people in attendance making up a miniscule fraction of the 10,000 that showed up for the OR show. It represented an embarrassingly shallow lack of substance in an industry built on the substance of such individuals as Bruce Babbitt.

Here was a man who came from a ranching family in Northern Arizona who became a lawyer, a governor, and the Secretary of Interior who tackled some of the most complex and controversial issues in public land management resulting in long overdue reforms to mining, grazing, and endangered species law. A man who used his skills as an effective public advocate and teacher to counter the inevitable criticism from political opponents, and was instrumental in defeating the environmental rollback propositions of the Republican’s 1994 manifesto, Contract with America.

Here was a man who  was the first Secretary of Interior to restore fire to its natural role in the wild and to tear down dams, restoring river flow into the Atlantic and the Pacific; a man who was personally involved in demonstrating catch and release programs for endangered trout and salmon to highlight how restoring native fish habitats restores economies; the same man who provided recommendations to President Clinton that led to the creation of 21 new monuments protected under the Antiquities Act that are now being undone by President Trump.


Arcteryx espresso mug from the OR Show

The OR industry turned a deaf ear to this man – until now. Babbitt’s words are reaching once deaf ears like the distant rumble of a long gone train. As if rising from a dead and distant past I can hear him say, “Wake up. Your industry – the $646 billion per year outdoor recreation industry – is a sleeping giant. If you mobilize the full economic and political power of your industry, you can change the debate. The persistent, high-stakes debate about public lands that is.” (Jimmy Tobias, 2015, Outside Magazine)

Patagonia did “wake up” and may finally be garnering Washington’s attention, but they are largely a lone wolf in the outdoor retail industry. Many in the industry are still plugging their ears. Many disagree with Patagonia’s stand, disagreed with pulling out of the OR show, and are playing it safe on the sidelines.  Why mess up a good thing?

Many believe that Patagonia will take hard blows and may be destroyed in this fight. Many are shaking their heads at what is surely going to be a long legal battle, wondering if Patagonia has the stamina to go the distance and if the company will end up laying off employees to continue their fight.

Patagonia most certainly has something to lose and it’s more than just retail sales; they have put it all on the line in defense of public lands and therefore, could lose it all. But, as former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said, “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” They are clearly at the table now and contrary to high ranking political figures poisoning the well by suggesting that Patagonia is catering to coastal elites, the costs they could incur speaks to the integrity of their fight – a fight we all stand to win or lose.

Wallace Stegner quoted Sherwood Anderson writing to Waldo Frank in his Wilderness letter, “Is it not likely that when the country was new and men were often alone in the fields and the forest they got a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost…. Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the American line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies…. I am old enough to remember tales that strengthen my belief in a deep semi-religious influence that was formerly at work among our people. The flavor of it hangs over the best work of Mark Twain…. I can remember old fellows in my home town speaking feelingly of an evening spent on the big empty plains. It had taken the shrillness out of them. They had learned the trick of quiet…”

And then said, “We could learn it too, even yet; even our children and grandchildren could learn it. But only if we save, for just such absolutely non-recreational, impractical, and mystical uses as this, all the wild that still remains to us.”


Red Mountain Wilderness Area, UT

Bruce Babbitt said, “This is the moment to apply the strength of your industry to the defense of America’s public lands.”

One could argue that Patagonia is doing just that. It’s not just about climbing or just about sales, it’s about the idea behind real places that provide intangible spiritual value to people who need and yearn for it. The land is a gift available to us that we neither earned nor deserve, but have. This fight is not just worthy, but according to Bruce Babbitt, doable – but we have to engage in it.

Let’s hope the outdoor retail industry can produce impactful results as well as create compelling stories to sell merchandise. Let’s hope Patagonia is not just the tip of the spear, but the tip of the spear with the entire Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) behind it – however active behind the scenes or slow to act they may be. “REI alone, with a membership of 16 million – more than three times that of the NRA – is theoretically capable of exerting enormous pressure on lawmakers.” What could the Patagoniac tribe, REI members, and the OIA bring to the table as a united front?

We need to decide where we stand else we become the ranchers of tomorrow. What makes mountain bikers who pushed for the wheels in wilderness legislation similar to ranchers like Cliven Bundy is that they are fighting for their own self-interest. They believe that their wants supersede everything else. It is a short-sighted view. We recreationists would be wise to consider our impacts on the land – we far outnumber ranchers – and should acknowledge and respect limits when pursuing activities that we love.

We should also support those fighting a battle that we stand to benefit from. Here’s to Patagonia and the hope that the OIA stands with them – and that they team up with tested and hardened veterans of the public lands battle, the modern day Teddy Roosevelts – the Babbitts and Udalls of the country – and wins, because if Patagonia and others like them persevere, we will all preserve and maintain a little longer our national Tristan caribinercharacter that was shaped and forged by a wild and untamed landscape.

We will reveal to the world that our character is built on more than money, that we respect and value the wisdom and gifts our ancestors gave us, and that we fight for our ideals because it’s who we are and who we will continue to be. And maybe, more importantly, we will leave behind for those coming after us the legacy of caring enough about each other to preserve our wild lands as sanctuaries for anyone seeking a momentary reprieve from a hurting and angry man-made world.



Destroying a Great American Tradition: The Antiquities Act

Crawford Arch, Utah

Crawford Arch, Utah

Originally published at

There was a bill quietly drafted and proposed in the Utah legislature that strangely didn’t get a lot of attention. It was S.C.R. 4, called the Concurrent Resolution Regarding the Creation of National Monuments. It is a bill that seeks to limit the President’s power in designating national monuments. Right now it is with the Office of Legislative Research and General Council. If the bill gets approved, it will be taken to Congress.

It is no surprise that Representative Mike Noel is the House sponsor, but it was a surprise that our own Senator Steve Urquhart was the primary sponsor. This looks like a scorched earth tactic being used by Utah politicians against their enemy, the President of the United States, and because of the nature of what they are seeking, us, the American public. But let me clarify that it is not aimed at all presidents, just Democratic ones. Apparently Republican presidents just like to sell our land while Democrats like to protect it – which is a threat to Utah politicians.

If you are not familiar with Representative Mike Noel from Kanab, let me acquaint you with him. He has fought air quality standards. He has tried to shut down the Department of Environmental Quality (and he is on the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Committee of all things). And of course he supports transferring public lands from the federal government to the state as well as keeping every trail, track, and road on public land designated a road. While he almost let the Department of Environmental Quality die due to lack of funding in a grand standing stunt about not taking federal dollars, he will take those federal dollars when it comes to his water district.

Since he’s a rancher, farmer, and water manager it all makes sense. Noel’s stance on protecting the environment equates in his mind to “hating his children and grandchildren” who just want jobs. What jobs you ask? Mining and drilling jobs. Apparently Noel has not weighed clean air, land, and water, or health, into the equation.

So what is a scorched earth policy? It’s a military strategy which involves destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy.

This might sound a little extreme but let me explain.

Following the 1978 proposal to list the San Diego mesa mint on the endangered species list in California, a developer who owned 279 acres on which he planned to build 1,429 houses became worried that the development would be derailed if the plant got listed. His concerns were not invalid as the Veteran’s Administration who was providing the loan said it would be unable to approve the loan for the development if the plant was listed. A year later just days before the plant got listed, the developer engaged in the scorched earth strategy by bulldozing the plants. And his loan went through.

What Urquhart and Noel are trying to do is usurp the President’s powers under the Antiquities Act to preemptively limit the President in being able to propose national monuments in Utah before he leaves office. This is not, however, a novel idea. Wyoming and Alaska both did something similar, which I am sure Urquhart is using as precedent, but I’m not sure it’s worked out for either of those states in a positive way. But it would in Utah because Utah not only has lands that should be protected, but it also has mineral resources in those spectacular lands – which means that if those lands are not protected, the negative impacts will be huge.

All that being said, the President has unfettered power to designate monuments on public lands; and incidentally, the Antiquities Act was used on private lands as well. In the eastern U.S. the Act was used under eminent domain to protect battlefields from the Civil War. But the Antiquities Act also provided for protection of ancient Indian ruins, and lands for scientific research, and it is very broad.

So what Urquhart and Noel want to do is make sure that doesn’t happen in Utah again without Utah’s approval. They want to ensure that the multi-use policy of the BLM continues at Cedar Mesa and the San Rafael Swell because they are worried the President will designate both locations as National Monuments. To put it in plainly, they want to make sure that mining, drilling, and grazing will continue to be allowed on those lands. But it needs to be stated that while those lands reside within Utah’s borders, that land is owned by the Federal Government to be managed for the people of the United States as a trust, or further protected under monument status if the President deems it prudent.

The Antiquities Act was signed into law in 1906 by President Teddy Roosevelt and started the preservation of historic sites and iconic landscapes. Ironically enough, it came about because of vandalism at ancient Indian ruin sites – much like what has been happening in the Four Corners area, and specifically Blanding, Utah, where a federal raid happened in recent years because locals keep digging up ancient artifacts on public lands. What early American politicians and scientists were conceded about was the prospect of history being erased by vandals and development. But the Act did not just set out to preserve ancient historic sites, it extended to locations with scenic and scientific value as well.

Where the streams play

Where the streams play

According to an article in the Natural Resources Journal by Richard West Sellars, “Certain parts of the public lands, mainly those that were scenically spectacular, came to be perceived as possessing special qualities and values beyond purely economic factors and therefore worthy of being retained by the federal government as a public trust, not to be disposed of and treated in the customary ways. Direct federal intervention that set aside these select places for preservation, and then actively managed them for the general public good, arrived most emphatically on March 1, 1872 with the creation of Yellowstone National Park—more than two million acres reserved from sale or other disposition and dedicated to the “benefit and enjoyment of the people.””

The first designations under the Antiquities Act were the Devil’s Tower in Montana and the Grand Canyon, originally a National Monument. So you see that even before the Antiquities Act was signed into law, the country was already protecting landscapes they did not want to see destroyed. Without this law and the actions of forward thinking people, many of our most precious and valuable places would not have been protected or set aside for everyone’s enjoyment and use. They may have been razed for mining, developed as premier subdivisions, or fractured and shot through for drilling. And what a travesty would that have been.

Can you imagine someone wanting to drill for oil at the Grand Canyon? Or mine for coal? Well, imagine it because there are people who would and there are politicians willing to do their bidding in the name of jobs. But it’s not just jobs, its also development and the short-term rewards that come with it.

But again, that was something the Antiquities Act sought to curb, contrary to what our local politicians would like to believe. While they may think monument designation is just Democratic presidents pandering to special interest groups, history has much more to say about it than that. From the same article in the Natural Resources Journal, the early establishment of National Parks was done “in an attempt to save especially majestic landscapes from the onslaught of European-American settlement in the West and exploitation of resources on public lands.”

Sound familiar? Well, it should because that is exactly what our politicians are aiming to do with their repeated attempts to wrest control from the Federal Government.

This proposed legislation by Sen. Urquhart and Rep. Noel is just another fragment of the transfer of public lands mentality here in Utah, all wrapped up in the same old grudge over Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the large protected piece of land filled with mineral rich coal and gas deposits that Utah politicians, and apparently locals, are still seething over. And they are still trying to get their hands on it by undoing the monument designation. They believe that President Clinton took that land away without any consideration for the local people or economy. Which might be how it felt to them, but which is largely an ignorant view of monument designations. Protecting land is part of our national and cultural heritage – it is one of the best policy decisions we as a nation have ever made. It was one of the few policies aimed at the future rather than short-sighted instant gratification or the almighty dollar.

As for Escalante being a frivolous designation aimed to appease environmentalists, I would beg to differ.

I listened to Bruce Babbitt speak just a couple of months ago in Salt Lake City at the Winter OR show where he joked about traveling around the Grand Staircase area and seeing his effigy marked in many locations as he spoke to locals about the monument designation. Being told and considered but not getting your way is not the same as being tricked. But beyond that, have you been paying attention to the discoveries of dinosaur fossils found in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument? If locals had had their way, those fossils never would have been found to enlighten our understanding of the prehistoric world. Or they would have been available for seeing amidst oil rigs and mining operations. And who knows, if they had gotten those leases for extractive industries, it’s possible those fossils would have been destroyed forever.

What Noel and Urquhart are trying to do is throw our pearls to swine.

Not only are they ignoring a grand American tradition, they are trying to limit it from continuing. They want the states and local populations to have a say in monument designations because they want to stop the designations. They want monuments to be as small as possible, which apparently they think has not been happening. But those acreage recommendations usually come from organizations and scientists who are aware of the potential, and therefore, are probably are as small as required, regardless of how large. Those acres are not determined willy-nilly, or in a manner meant to hurt local populations.

According to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, “State lawmakers are declaring grazing and mineral extraction the “highest and best use” for Cedar Mesa and the San Rafael Swell.”

In other words, they want to mine, and drill, and graze is some of the most spectacular places left un-touched in Utah rather than protect them. Senator Urquhart’s “resolution acknowledges Cedar Mesa and the San Rafael Swell are worthy of protection, but it claims “vast tracts of land” in both should be open to continued grazing and “environmentally sensitive” energy and mineral development.”

First of all, what exactly is “environmentally friendly” mineral development? That sounds like an oxymoron to me. Since when is tearing the earth up, leveling mountains, or pumping poison into the ground and water table environmentally friendly? Because that’s what we are talking about. And second, how much grass is out in those locations? How much damage do those cattle exert – or are they environmentally friendly as well? I know it’s massively unpopular to say this, but cattle don’t belong in the west. They belong in grass-rich, rain-rich locations. Fragile desert ecosystems cannot support them. And neither can the taxpayer incidentally. But the interesting thing is that anything allowed on those lands now will more than likely be grand-fathered in. So what is it really that Urquhart and Noel are after?

I recently saw a Big 5 commercial. Have you seen it? I’m not sure if it runs in Utah, but it runs in other states. It’s a commercial about our big five national parks meant to drive tourism to our state. Can you imagine making a commercial of the big 5 extractive locations? Please, come to our state where we have torn up the earth, polluted it, and destroyed it. Isn’t it beautiful? 

Most boom and bust towns have survived the bust after an extractive industry lays waste to the area and leaves town by promoting recreation and tourism. People recreate in and travel to beautiful, unspoiled places. If you destroy those places, they will be forever marred.

If Urquhart and Noel get their way, and others like them such as Ken Ivory, our most treasured assets will be for sale to the highest and most powerful bidders and we will be the losers. These politicians are the very reason we need the Antiquities Act because they don’t seem to see much beyond their own noses. It is usually those on the outside looking in that see things differently and with a wider lens, which is why public lands are owned by the Federal Government. Without such checks and balances as the Antiquities Act, local people in local places without that wider view would be able to run rough-shod of every piece of land with the potential for dollars and votes.

Valuable real estate

Valuable real estate

It’s not evil, it’s just human nature to look out for your own self-interest. But self-interest on the local level cannot trump the greater good for the American public, no matter how much Utahn’s resent it. Trying to get around the Antiquities Act looks as slimy and greedy as tricking people into believing the government was under some obligation to give public lands to the states. Some things are worth protecting and do have priceless value that cannot be measured on the stock exchange. Places with scientific potential, cultural artifacts, and pristine and stunning landscapes are some of them. Instead of trying to undermine one of the best things this country has been doing, why not join those who are trying to progress and pursue sustainable energy and economic policies rather than cling to the out-dated industrial economic model?

As U.S. Congressman John F. Lacey said in 1901 when he proposed the Antiquities Act, “The immensity of man’s power to destroy imposes a responsibility to preserve.”

The Antiquities Act is as much about controlling our baser instincts as it is about preserving places of natural beauty, wonder, and history. Furthermore, places like Cedar Mesa have spiritual significance and is like a natural temple.

Joseph H. Suina, descendant of the ancient Puebloan people who lived on Northern New Mexico’s Pajarito Plateau said this, “But at the same time, those places are now occupied by a higher form of life, if you will, the spirits of our ancestors….So these places for us are sacred, living places….that’s one of the vital connections that we have that’s really not captured in any way by archaeologists, in any shape or form.”

These landscapes, battlefields, and historical sites are living places which anyone who has ever visited any number of our parks, lands, or monuments in the west or across the country can attest.

I for one, hope President Obama does designate both places as National Monuments. While it may not be the majority of Utahns, there is a sizable minority here and outside of Utah who would celebrate such designations, and future generations of the world, not just Utah, will reap the benefits.

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