With the comment period for the review of 27 national monuments totaling 11.3 million acres at the U.S. Department of the Interior coming to a close on July 10, there's a possibility for some sweeping changes in federal public lands. We've already expressed our opinion, but we wanted to know: how do locals view these monuments?
Three local notables had plenty to say about the monuments under review in their respective backyards in the Southwest, Northwest, and Northeast. The common thread in these conversations: Keep our public lands public.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Scott Berry, co-owner, Boulder Mountain Lodge
"I'm mostly a retired lawyer," says Berry, who spends his winters skiing Alta near Salt Lake City. "I've bounced between the two areas my whole life."
He started coming to the Grand Staircase-Escalante area in the late 1960s. "We started driving down to Southern Utah to go backpacking," he says. "The very first environmental cause I got involved in was back when they were going to build a road across the Escalante to Bullfrog."
He bought property in Torrey in the early 1980s and started visiting with his wife, Barbra, and their two children. "We built a one-room cabin, 23 feet by 14 feet, no running water, no electricity," he says. "It became our deluxe camping spot. Now we have a much nicer house in the exact same spot."
He helped get the Boulder Mountain Lodge off the ground in Boulder, Utah, in 1994, with the idea of supporting the protection of public lands in the area. "The local hospitality industry didn’t seem to support conservation efforts in Southern Utah, and we all did. We figured we'd create this lodge and publicly support conservation to demonstrate that a successful business could also support conservation. Lo and behold, it happened."
Since Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument's establishment in 1996, he's seen the economic fortunes of the area reverse. "The whole feeling and atmosphere of Boulder has changed and the lodge was a big part of that," says Berry.
"The monument has continued to play a critical role in developing the economy of the towns around the monument."
Scott Berry, co-owner, Boulder Mountain Lodge, Utah
The 22-room lodge's business has grown "steadily and gradually" since it opened. "The whole season, we're above 95 percent occupancy," says Berry. "At first, it was more like 60 percent. I remember when we had pretty good springs and falls, but we were dead in the summers. That's pretty much gone away."
Some locals involved legacy industries like ranching "are generally opposed" to the monument, says Berry. "What they are seeing is radical demographic change in their community. They go, 'We aren't part of that and we don't want to be part of that.'" He describes it as "a rural form of gentrification."
But the numbers don't lie. "More than 50 percent of the county's income is related to hospitality," says Berry. "It's part of this growing realization: What's Southern Utah really got to sell? What's our long-term business plan for this part of the state? We've got some of the most incredible landscapes in the entire world. If we take care of them, they can sustain the economy for years to come."
He points to Switzerland coming to the same realization in the 1850s. "They're still selling scenery today and still doing wonderful."
The monument is a big target of public lands foes, literally: At 1.9 million acres, it's the largest monument in the system and targeted for possible cuts. Berry argues that the features of the canyons, Skutumpah Terrace, and Kaiparowits Plateau are all unique and best conserved as part of such a business model. "Kaiparowits is a giant plateau that sits on top of everything else. It's so big that when you drive across it, you don't even realize you're on a mesa. We think that it's critical."
The idea that Obama-, Bush-, and Clinton-era monument designations amount to a "federal land grab" ignores history, says Berry. "Words hide a lot of baggage. The whole 'land grab’ thing just cracked me up. These lands never belonged to the states. When the Mormons came here in 1847, this was Mexico. The whole 'land grab’ thing is a complete misrepresentation. Sometimes, history's important. The only grab here was the federal government grabbing land from the Native Americans."
With Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah perhaps the crucible of the entire review, Berry decries the effort in Utah now to terminate federal lands. "I didn't expect to see this at this stage in my life," he says. "Everybody knows the state would just sell them off and the public would be denied access to these landscapes."
He says the big rationale against the monument was that the designation prevented coal mining on the monument's Kaiparowits Plateau. "The great thing about mining in the West, you can mine the resources, you can mine the investors, or you can mine the government," says Berry.
In the case of Kaiparowits, "They're never going to mine the coal," he predicts. "The economy's just changed. It looks like a shell game. They're going to mine investors or they're going to mine the government."
Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Oregon/California
We spoke with Dr. Michael Parker, professor, Southern Oregon University.
He says the intersection of several distinct ecosystems, including the Cascade and Siskiyou mountain ranges, the Modoc Plateau, seasonal lakes, and dense forests, makes Cascade-Siskiyou unique.
"I'm a freshwater ecologist," says Parker. "Even before the monument was established in 2000, I was doing research in the area."
"It's got one of the highest diversities of plant species and things like butterflies that rely on plants," says Parker. "It's just an amazingly diverse place."
In fact, he adds, that's the rationale for the monument. "This is the first monument established to protect biodiversity."
Parker started spending time in what is now the monument when he was a student at Southern Oregon University (SOU) in the 1970s, but his personal connection to the area goes back even further. The sixth-generation Oregonian's ancestors "came through the monument's land on the Applegate Trail to get to Oregon."
He ended up back at SOU after stints at University of California, Davis, and Reno State in Nevada, and Cascade-Siskiyou was part of the attraction. "If you're an ecologist, this is the place to be."
The monument was expanded by President Obama in 2017, and Parker sees the possibility of revoking the protections now as an affront to his work. "The objective science supports the protection of the region because of the biodiversity," he says. "That's the frustrating thing. To roll back the work over the decades would endanger its biodiversity and value. It's a treasure for everybody, not just the people in this region."
"It would open it up to a lot of the abuses we've seen in Western ecosystems that are in terrible shape. There's a lot of people that would like to see it go back to that mindset where extraction is king. They're not making much pristine land anymore."
Parker describes near-unanimous support from local communities and their leaders. "The idea that this takes something away from the county's value is ridiculous," he says. "It’s quiet. It's peaceful? How do you put a value on that?"
Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, Maine
We spoke to Matt Polstein, owner, New England Outdoor Center in Maine.
"We've been operating lodging and dining in the area since the early '80s," says Polstein. "We've had a steadily growing business."
The New England Outdoor Center expanded to the area near the monument when it bought Twin Pines Cabins on Millinocket Lake in the 1990s. The property now features 22 cottages and can sleep about 120 people.
After a multi-year push for protection, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument came to be in August 2016 with Roxanne Quimby's donation of 87,563 acres east of Baxter State Park, paired with $40 million in philanthropic support.
"Lo and behold, last year the president miraculously designated it a national monument," says Polstein. "We thought we had made it over the finish line."
Left intact, the monument will only get better with time, he adds. "It's been heavily cut but will recover."
That's a common story in the area, the mark of the legacy forest products industry that's seen better days. "There's been such a steep decrease in jobs," Polstein says. "There have been six mills that have closed in the Penobscot watershed in the last 10 years."
Hope for a comeback faded when those mills weren't merely shuttered, but "dismantled and scrapped," he adds. Locals "are willing to embrace tourism." And the monument is a big part of the shift.
"The protection might be a little less important than the branding. We know the National Park Service drives traffic and the brand drives traffic."
Matt Polstein, owner, New England Outdoor Center
Since the monument was officially designated in August 2016, Polstein has seen an uptick in business. His restaurant sales were up more than 30 percent last fall, followed by "a really strong winter." It's carried over into 2017. "A month ago, my summer bookings were up 30 percent. Our May and June bookings were up 80 percent."
With the increased demand, Polstein is planning to build two or three new cabins in the next few years, but is hesitant to pull the trigger until the review is complete. "We're waiting to see what happens."
Monument status has also been important for the gateway town of Millinocket, where new shops have opened downtown in hopes of catching on with the monument's visitors. Polstein opened a storefront on the main drag to sell his outdoor activities. And there's room for more growth, he adds. "There are a lot of spectacular natural assets in the area, but not a lot of built amenities to go with that."
Rescinding the monument designation "would be, in a word, disastrous," Polstein argues. "It was a wedge that separated the community but it's now pulling the community together. People are rallying around it."
If national monument status were revoked, he says, "People's spirits would be dashed. I can't stress how important that is. This has been an area without hope. Since the designation, there's been hope."
Make Your Voice Heard
Comments close in a few days, on July 10th. If you want your voice to be heard, here's our opinion on why the issue matters as well as details on how to comment.
Originally written for RootsRated Media.