The Story of Place: Greater Canyonlands, Unprotected Territory

“What is this place worth in oil? Where do we want to steer our civilization? What do we want left when we’re done? — Craig Childs

Mesa_Arch_Canyonlands_National_Park labeled for noncommercial reuse

 

 

 

 

 

The true Wild West

Canyonlands National Park, and the lands that border it, are part of a complex tale of political horse-trading, pressures for resource extraction and recreational opportunities. Above all, this land is the true Wild West, a rugged and vastly untouched landscape, a place wherein lies our human spirit.

A host of threats

A new short film, The Story of Place, takes us deep into the unprotected territory of the Greater Canyonlands region alongside Craig Childs, Ace Kvale and Jim Enote, who narrate the story of this grand landscape, how it shapes us, and the potential threats it currently faces. But more than that, it is a call to action:

About a month’s worth of oil

Developers are currently targeting the region just outside of Canyonlands National Park for oil and gas drilling, and the threats of potash, uranium and tar sands mining all loom on the horizon. The Greater Canyonlands region holds only about a month’s worth of oil at today’s consumption rates, yet it holds the ongoing story of humanity in its very core, and can continue to tell the collective tale of mankind if we protect it.

This region of southeastern Utah is a veritable well of human spirit, an endless supply of recreation, solitude, wonder and history. This place and its story are irreplaceable. This land is worth protecting.

What can you do?

1.  Sign the petition asking President Obama to protect Greater Canyonlands

2. Share your story and spread the word. Please share The Story of Place with your friends, family and online communities.

Thank you for stepping up to protect Our Canyon Lands. It will take all of us together to protect this special place. This land is our heritage, our history and our legacy: let’s keep it that way.

Our Canyon Lands is a series of films with one goal: Protect Greater Canyonlands. Through these films, we hope to inspire, educate and ignite passion for protecting the Greater Canyonlands region. Visit ourcanyonlands.org to learn more.

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Wildfire and Big Trees: a middle path

Notes from the Field: the North Rim Ranches

Unlike lands to the south, these stands were never logged heavily and many large, old trees remain.High risk of severe wildfire

What happens when you combine a new Forest Service plan with citizen-led efforts to increase collaboration around management in forests that harbor some of the largest and oldest ponderosa pine trees left in the Southwest, and that carry a high risk of severe wildfire? Over a night and day on the Kaibab Plateau on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, I discovered the difficulties and opportunities partners face when confronting what appear to be mutually exclusive solutions to knotty problems.

A landscape of almost a million acres

With only a week on the job as the new Director of Land Conservation and Stewardship for the Grand Canyon Trust, this meeting was my initial exposure to working on the ground with folks north of the Grand Canyon who care deeply about the Kaibab Plateau. The Trust is committed to science and conservation-based management across the Plateau and continues to lead a research partnership gathering data to answer ecological questions that can transform land management for the better. Collaboration is essential to discovering what works and doesn’t work across a landscape of almost a million acres.

North Rim Ranches

Situated amid three national monuments and sharing a 110 mile boundary with Grand Canyon National Park, the public lands grazing allotments held by the Kane and Two Mile Ranches (“North Rim Ranches”) include nearly 850,000 acres of high, forested plateaus cut by deep canyons, rolling grasslands, and slickrock badlands.

 Straight Shooters

But I found that the Kaibab Plateau is different—and in more ways than one. First, strident disagreement was absent—these people, many of whom had worked together in the Kaibab Forest Health Focus group, were straight shooters and committed to better management on behalf of the forest. Second, the group wanted to avoid lengthy debate and inaction–they wanted to get things done.  And third, the ponderosa pine forests up here at 8500 feet are different. Unlike lands to the south, these stands were never logged heavily and many large, old trees remain.

A Catch-22

But this last difference could be a deal breaker- walking with the group through several stands of larger trees with interlocking canopies, my ecological eye noticed the obvious—if we wanted to reduce the risk of destructive wildfire, increase forest health, and restore recruitment of young pines for the forests of the future, then cutting down some large trees might need to be part of our plan. Yet logging trees bigger than 16-18” in diameter was a “no go” to many folks who equate large trees with healthy forests. It seemed as if our group was being challenged to do two things at once—protect large trees to build the old growth of the future OR cut down larger trees so that the forests of the present could be made more resilient to fire, insects and disease. I left our initial field meeting feeling hope, not despair. Maybe there is a way forward where the Trust can support a win-win solution. In some places, large trees can be left alone and management decisions could favor creating the conditions to grow old forests for future generations. There are many places across the 30,000-acre project area where we can experiment with “growing future old growth”. This has never been attempted before in the Southwest and the Trust could provide leadership and offer sound science to do this.

Volunteers collecting biomass for post-fire research.

Volunteers collecting biomass for post-fire research.

In other areas on the north Kaibab, our group could decide that the risk of fire is so high that removing some larger trees would be in the best interests of the forest now and over the long term. Using ecological data, our group could help the Forest Service select where these places are located and then set bounds on this experiment to reduce the risk of unnaturally severe fire from destroying what we all seek to protect.

Cut them to save them?

I believe in the capacity of our collaborative partners to negotiate this tough challenge. Maybe, if we can look across this diverse planning unit of the north Kaibab and consider it as a whole, we can have healthy, fire-resistant forests as well as inspiring, regionally rare, and invaluable old growth. If we attempt to save every large tree while climate change rachets up the risk of stand-destroying conflagrations, these forest are likely to go up in flames. Neither do we have to cut all large trees to restore these stands to health. There is a middle path, based on science and collaboration, that can guide our group toward healthy forests for the future. Working at the Trust, I plan to help us get there.

Learn more about the North Rim Ranches.

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Success! A Blueprint for Collaboration on Utah’s Public Lands

The agreement designates fourteen miles of the Green River for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic River System. Photo by: Ray Bloxham, SUWA

The Green River, Daggett County, Utah. (c) Ray Bloxham, SUWA

In a ceremony at the Utah State Capitol today, conservation groups, Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), and officials from Daggett County and the State of Utah announced a landmark agreement on public lands protection. The plan would result in new wilderness areas and river and wildlife protections–including an internationally renowned tailwater trout fishery on the Green River and increased wilderness protection for the High Uintas, treasured by hunters, hikers, and families–as part of a process initiated by Rep. Bishop.

Good for the Land, Good for the People

Leidy Peak in the expanded High Uintas Wilderness, Daggett County. Photo by Tim Peterson

Leidy Peak in the expanded High Uintas Wilderness, Daggett County. (c) Tim Peterson

“Wilderness lets us visit a place that is as it was when my family arrived here 7 generations ago. A place that 7 generations hence can experience in the same way our ancestors did. In this way wilderness connects us to our family tree – both our forebears and those yet to come,” said Tim Peterson, Utah Wildlands Program Director for Grand Canyon Trust.  “Wilderness is place to shape and strengthen our children’s character in wild nature as my own character was molded as a boy with my family in the High Uintas – a place we’re celebrating today.”

Home to Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area and reservoir as well as significant National Forest system lands in the Uinta Mountains, Daggett County also includes Browns Park, an isolated and beautiful valley that is the gateway to the Canyon of Lodore and Dinosaur National Monument. It’s steeped in the history of the old west – Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, the Hole in the Wall gang and others used Browns Park for refuge after robberies in Green River and Rock Springs, Wyoming and the nearby rail line. The agreement marked a major breakthrough in the Eastern Utah Public Lands Initiative (PLI), conceived by Rep. Bishop to build consensus among stakeholders in eastern Utah to designate lands for both conservation and development.

By the Numbers

The proposal designates 82,408 acres of federal land as wilderness areas, classifies an additional 31,083 acres of federal land for a separate conservation designation to preserve wildlife and habitat and designates fourteen miles of the Green River for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic River System. The High Uintas Wilderness – Utah’s highest and largest at 456,705 acres – would gain 50,000 acres of wilderness, bringing the total to over half a million acres. The proposal would also set up a mechanism for trading scattered state trust land inholdings in conservation areas for development-appropriate federal land elsewhere.

Protecting Wilderness, Bolstering Local Economies

The deal calls for the trade of some Forest Service lands near the junction of the county’s two major highways – US 191 and UT 44 –to Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), which works to generate revenue from the state’s public lands to benefit the public schools–for a possible year-round ski/destination resort. In exchange, SITLA lands adjacent to the current Forest Service boundary will become National Forest lands. The community of Dutch John will expand its footprint by roughly 800 acres to acquire a possible landfill site and rifle range. In exchange for trading out of newly protected areas, SITLA will also acquire a deep cavern natural gas storage facility at Clay Basin, potentially returning significant revenues to the county.

Here’s what it looks like:

A map of the Daggett County conservation agreement

[CLICK TO ENLARGE ] A map of the Daggett County conservation agreement.

A Framework for Legislation

An active and solution-oriented coalition, including the Grand Canyon Trust, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club and other conservation organizations like Trout Unlimited worked with officials to finalize a Daggett County proposal.  This agreement is intended to provide a framework for legislation to be introduced by Rep. Bishop.

The agreement being announced during a ceremony at the Utah State Capitol. (c) Ray Bloxham, SUWA

The agreement being announced during a ceremony at the Utah State Capitol. (c) Ray Bloxham, SUWA

“It’s rare in today’s highly politicized environment to be able to meet in the middle on issues, especially issues of public lands protection,” remarked Mark Clemens, Chapter manager for the Utah Sierra Club. “The end result though is a win for everyone.”

Daggett was among the last counties to join the PLI, but a willingness to give and take on wilderness and land exchange helped establish common ground.

“We believe this good news can serve as a blueprint in going forward to resolve the range of complex conservation and economic issues associated with other wild places in Utah,” said Bobby McEnaney, Senior Lands Advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“This proposal is good for the land and good for the people that live there,” said Paul Spitler, Director of Wilderness Campaigns for The Wilderness Society.

All in all, the agreement is a victory for wildland conservation in some of northeast Utah’s most remote and breathtaking landscapes. This is the way everybody always hopes we will work together. Daggett is a county with about 10,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas and has agreed to more than 110,000 acres of permanent protection. We’re optimistic that what we’ve achieved in Daggett can serve as a model as we move forward in this process with other counties.

Read the press release.

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Public Meeting! Tell EPA to Stop the Toxic Legacy of Uranium Mill Contamination

The EPA has found that the excess radon emissions harm people within a fifty-mile radius, a distance that encompasses White Mesa, Bluff, Blanding, and Monticello.

The EPA has found that the excess radon emissions harm people within a fifty-mile radius, a distance that encompasses White Mesa, Bluff, Blanding, and Monticello.

The Grand Canyon Trust has been pressing on multiple fronts to ensure that the White Mesa Uranium Mill – the only operating uranium mill in the United States – operates in full compliance with all laws designed to protect public and environmental health.  The White Mesa Mill is located just three miles from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s White Mesa community, on Highway 191.  It is also located less than 15 miles from both Bluff and Blanding, Utah. The White Mesa Uranium Mill processes uranium from mines across the Colorado Plateau, and also extracts uranium from radioactive waste that is imported from toxic sites across North America.

Submit your comments on the proposed EPA rule by October 29, 2014

Submit your comments on the proposed EPA rule by October 29, 2014.

Now EPA has proposed a lax new regulation that will apply to the White Mesa Uranium Mill. EPA’s proposed regulation will threaten public health by eliminating enforceable emission standards for radon, reducing the amount of required reporting and monitoring, and delaying reclamation of the White Mesa Mill site.

In a departure from its current regulations, EPA’s proposed new rule entirely removes numeric emission standards and accompanying monitoring and reporting requirements for radon emissions at the Mill.  It also fails to limit the number of total tailings impoundments at the mill site. The existing limit of two tailings impoundments was intended to ensure ongoing reclamation of uranium mill sites, and to prevent owners from abandoning highly polluted sites without adequate remediation.

The toxic legacy of inadequately reclaimed uranium mills is a reality across southeastern Utah. Perhaps most visible is the former Atlas uranium mill, located along the banks of the Colorado River outside of Moab, Utah.  The ongoing cost of the federal closure and remediation of Atlas site is expected to exceed $1 billion — a cost borne by taxpayers after the mill owners declared bankruptcy.

Public Meeting in White Mesa on lax new EPA rule proposed for uranium mill

Despite local concerns, the EPA denied requests to hold a hearing on its proposed regulation within reasonable distance of affected communities. Instead EPA held sparsely-attended meetings in Denver, Colorado, 450 miles away, but a convenient eight-mile drive from the Lakewood, Colorado office of Energy Fuels – the owner of the White Mesa Mill.

In the absence of the EPA, the Trust will hold a public meeting at the White Mesa Community Center on Thursday, October 23rd at 6pm to discuss the new rule’s implications for public health and the environment, and to encourage local citizens to submit comments to EPA by the October 29th deadline.  This will be the only community meeting held about the proposed rule in the Four Corners Region, ground zero for the toxic legacy of uranium mill contamination. Please join us.

More on the proposed rule.

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Toad Wandering

A special guest post from Grand Canyon Trust volunteer Barb Gysel (Durango, CO)
Boreal toad

Have you ever heard of the boreal toad? No? Neither had we. Photo: Andrew Mount.

“Toad!” The word we had been patiently waiting to hear excitedly popped out of the mouth of our fellow volunteer as she approached a small boulder field adjacent to Monroe Creek,  where our group of eight intrepid “toad wanderers” had been searching for the elusive boreal toad. Our troupe quickly sprang into action as the toad scuttled beneath the closest small rock. One of the volunteers from Utah’s Hogle Zoo flexed his muscles and moved five heavy rocks, probing ever deeper, to unearth our objective. After a few anxious moments, he firmly but tenderly grasped the subject of our investigation and held it aloft as though we were in elementary school “show and tell.” That’s how excited we felt! Kevin Wheeler, wildlife biologist for Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources, quickly whipped out his ruler to measure our toad, then swiped its tummy and between its toes 20 times with a cotton swab. We weren’t trying to see if it would turn into a prince, but instead to collect data for laboratory analysis. Was this toad carrying the dreaded chytrid fungus which is wreaking havoc on the toad population in this area?

Have you ever heard of the boreal toad? No? Neither had we, until we became involved with another Grand Canyon Trust volunteer project. This small amphibian is classified as a sensitive species in Utah, and unfortunately, could someday to move to the even more critical “threatened” level.  Kevin Wheeler has been passionately studying this species and collecting data about it for the last 15 years.  The apprehension on his face expressed measured happiness at finding this individual toad, but also concern about declining boreal toad numbers and increasing spread of the menacing chytrid fungus disease.  Our data would help tell more of the story for this particular mountain in southern Utah.

The author, with one of the dozen or so boreal toads volunteers found on the trip. Photo: Andrew Mount.

The author, with one of the dozen or so boreal toads volunteers found on the trip. Photo: Andrew Mount.

The volunteer composition of this trip was different from others in which we had participated. In addition to staff from Grand Canyon Trust staff and Utah Division of Wildlife, there was a contingent of staff and volunteers from Utah’s Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. The interest, knowledge, and experience of these volunteers were evident. They eagerly shared their talents and knowledge during our daily treks on Monroe Mountain.

Due to the remoteness of the drainages that comprised our study areas, our hikes were challenging. We did not hike on trails, but instead climbed up rocky creek beds, with slippery rocks and a gazillion downed trees, usually ending up in a boggy meadow – perfect boreal toad habitat! The moist terrain endowed the meadows with an abundance of wild flowers. Lavender penstemons, and magenta shooting stars dotted the meadow like random appliqués on a quilt of brilliant green reeds and grasses. Herds of little pink elephants delighted those unfamiliar with this treasure among mountain flowers.

Our view from camp, in search of the boreal toad. Photo: Andrew Mount.

Our view from camp, in search of the boreal toad. Photo: Andrew Mount.

The meditative silence of toad searching attuned our ears for the mountain meadow’s musical playlist: the harmonic and cheerful song of the robin greeting each day with a touch of joy; the ethereal melody of the hermit thrush briefly inviting us into her world; the shrill screech of the red tailed hawk soaring high up above us as she peered down, looking for a snack; the deep gurgling burble of water mud as we appealed to the boggy meadows to release our feet from their grip. Could it be a toad we heard? Oh no, the sneaky boreal toads seldom make a sound!

Are you wondering if we discovered any of these elusive amphibians? YES, we did! Nearly a dozen of them in all, including three areas where they had never been found before on Monroe Mountain. We were happy to learn they are still on Monroe Mountain, and in places where they weren’t even known to be before. Kevin assured us that our research will help their survival, and that is a great feeling.

What is not to love about experiences like these? We spent time with great and committed people, doing important work, enjoying lots of good humor, great learning, exploring and fun.

Ready to join the fun? Find the Grand Canyon Trust volunteer trip that’s right for you.

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Draw a Line in the Sand: Take Action to Protect Our Canyon Lands

Protect Greater Canyonlands“What meaning is freedom without a wilderness? …At some point, we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say: thus far, and no farther.”

— Edward Abbey, A Line in the Sand.

The story of Canyonlands National Park, and the lands that border it, is a complex tale of political horse-trading, but it’s also a story of the Wild West, of a rugged landscape, adventure, and a fierce battle to protect the soaring peaks, slickrock canyons, hoodoos, and swift rivers that have captured the imagination of millions. The mining of potash, uranium, and tar sands is planned here, and drilling for oil and gas is already rapidly changing the character of the place and the visitor experience, threatening valuable wildlife habitat, water, and air quality.

A Line in the Sand is a short animated film set to the words of Edward Abbey. But more than that, it is a call to action to protect Greater Canyonlands before it’s too late.

Click to watch:

Click to watch A Line in the Sand

Abbey’s words have always been deliberately provocative, especially when he was defending the southern Utah landscape he loved so much.

“Edward Abbey was an ardent activist for this landscape; his words breathed life into this landscape,” A Line in the Sand director Justin Clifton said. “Abbey was willing to say things that no one else would.”

The canyon, desert, and mountain wild lands around Canyonlands National Park need friends like Abbey more than ever. Developers are currently targeting the region just outside of the park for mineral development. The dirty truth is this: the Greater Canyonlands region only holds roughly a month’s worth of oil at today’s consumption rates. But it holds many lifetimes’ worth of outdoor recreation and enjoyment if protected today. By creating a new Greater Canyonlands National Monument around the national park, we can halt the threats of short-sighted energy development while protecting the Colorado River for 40 million people who live downstream.

Outdoor recreation itself generates more than $12 billion in consumer spending and directly supports more than 122,000 Utah jobs. Simply put: the outdoor recreation economy results in nearly double the revenue of oil and gas development and triple the jobs nationwide. It is an economy that is infinite, invaluable, and unlimited. This region of southeastern Utah is a veritable well of human spirit, an endless supply of recreation, solitude, wonder, and history.

What can you do?

  1. Knowledge is power. Watch the A Line in the Sand and get fired up: https://vimeo.com/105842879 Hungry for more?
  2. Take action. Sign the petition asking President Obama to protect Our Canyon Lands: http://grandcanyontrust.nonprofitsoapbox.com/protectgreatercanyonlands
  3. Share the desert love. Please share A Line in the Sand with your friends, family and online communities.

Thank you for stepping up to protect Our Canyon Lands, because it will take all of us together to protect this special place. This land is our heritage, our history, and our legacy: let’s keep it that way.

In the words of Edward Abbey, “God bless America. Let’s save some of it.”

Our Canyon Lands is a series of films with one goal: Protect the Greater Canyonlands. A Line in the Sand is the first of this series. Through these films, we hope to inspire, educate and ignite passion in our nation to understand why protecting the Greater Canyonlands region is so important. Visit ourcanyonlands.org to learn more.

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