Climbers and Native Americans Explore Common Ground as Uncertainty Looms Over Eastern Utah

Last month, Access Fund’s public lands policy team joined representatives from the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and American Alpine Club on an EcoFlight over the Bears Ears region of eastern Utah to get an aerial perspective of what’s at stake in the battle over public land protections in the region.

Joined by Access Fund Native Lands Coordinator (Aaron Mike pictured at right), we compared conservation strategies with the Inter-Tribal Coalition and found common ground between climbers and the tribes. “Climbers and Native Americans share a more natural alliance than it might appear”, said Octavias Seowtewa, a Zuni medicine man.

While climbers and tribal representatives were finding common ground in the air above the Bears Ears region, the battle is continuing to heat up in Washington, DC. Congressmen Bishop (R-UT) and Chaffetz (R-UT) are planning to introduce their controversial Public Lands Initiative (PLI) bill and the President is considering the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s Bears Ears National Monument proposal. These competing plans are fundamentally antithetical and both have implications for climbers and the environment. Environmental concerns run the gamut (see massive evaporation pools from a potash mining operation in the region).

Both sides are digging in their heels: the entire Utah delegation recently issued a resolution to oppose a national monument, and the Inter-Tribal Coalition, along with many conservation organizations, are publicly criticizing the PLI. Some surveys indicate that Utah residents support a national monument but critics contend that a national monument is not justified and that the President should let the legislative process play out.

Declaration of a National Monument through the Antiquities Act has been used by 16 presidents (both Democrat and Republican) to proclaim nearly 150 National Monuments when Congressional gridlock has prevented federal lands with significant historic objects from being protected and conserved. Deputy Chief of Staff for Secretary of the Interior Jewell recently characterized the Antiquities Act as a “blunt tool” for protecting public lands. That is a diplomatic way of saying that there is usually some collateral damage associated with an executive order. An executive order is not especially democratic: there are no discussion drafts or legislative process, just one final proclamation. The Access Fund considers the Antiquities Act an important conservation tool that has resulted in the protection of some of the most iconic and valued public lands in the United States (e.g., Joshua Tree and Devils Tower). However, we generally prefer legislation over executive orders when possible.

There’s a lot at stake in this battle over eastern Utah, and climbers are caught in the middle of the rhetoric: a national monument would protect the landscape but could result in additional restrictions on climbing access, and the PLI could result in unacceptable impacts to the climbing environment (see Potash operation at right).

Climbers and Native Americans share a deep connection to the land as well as an appreciation for undeveloped landscapes. “Before there was a Utah or Arizona, there was one vast land that our people used,” says Seowtewa, pictured below with Access Fund Policy Director, Erik Murdock. “Look at it this way, our ancestors were the first climbers.” While Access Fund does not want access to Indian Creek and countless remote desert locations to become fettered, we support permanent land protections, condemn cultural resource desecration, and are sensitive to traditional values held by Native American Tribes.

The Access Fund policy team is working hard to ensure that the President recognizes the developing partnership between the Inter-Tribal Coalition and climbers as well as the world-class value of climbing opportunities in Utah. We have a much better chance of protecting climbing access if “rock climbing” is acknowledged in a National Monument proclamation by the President. Having this acknowledgment is essential to ensuring that land management agencies develop plans that appropriately protect climbing opportunities, and it paves the way for our seat at the table when these plans are being developed. In the end, our goal is similar to the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s: retain access and protect the environment.

June and July will most likely provide some answers for the future of eastern Utah’s vast landscape. Stay tuned.

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