Secretary Jewell Listens to Climbers on Bears Ears, Utah

If you’ve been tuned into Access Fund news channels over the last 6 months, you’ve noticed that we’ve talked about the Bears Ears region in eastern Utah—a lot. Eastern Utah is home to Indian Creek, Castle Valley, Fisher Towers, San Rafael Swell, Valley of the Gods, Texas and Arch Canyons, Lockhart Basin, Comb Ridge, and countless other climbing opportunities, this is an important region for climbers, as well as our Native American and conservation partners.

There is currently a contentious debate among lawmakers over how this spectacular swath of America’s public lands should be managed. There are two competing plans on the table: The Public Lands Initiative (PLI) bill and a National Monument proposal. The Access Fund policy team has been working hard to analyze both of these plans and their implications for climbers and the environment. We’ve spent hundreds of hours meeting with Utah and Washington D.C. lawmakers and objectively evaluating options for protecting climbing access, honoring our Native American partners, and conserving the environment. Our objective is a well-balanced solution that aligns with the conservation and access values of the climbing community.

Last weekend our entire policy team, along with our executive director and Native Lands coordinator, spent 3 days meeting with local climbers and elected officials, discussing climbing management with Secretary Jewell and other land managers, and listening to the spectrum of concerns shared by local stakeholders including the Native American community. This official Public Listening Session helped to further inform our understanding of the complex issues associated with protecting the Bears Ears region, and also provided Access Fund the opportunity to voice our ideas on climbing access and conservation to top-level policy makers.

We maintain hope that a legislative process could support public lands, honor Native American values, protect recreation resources, and provide landscape-scale conservation measures. While the PLI (H.R. 5780) introduced on July 14 includes some promising aspects for the recreation community—such as the Indian Creek National Conservation Area, Wild and Scenic Rivers, and boundary adjustments to address potential management challenges related to climbing at Bridger Jack Mesa, Mexican Mountain, and San Rafael Reef—we believe it still needs considerable work.

The PLI is problematic for the climbing community because, among other things, it does not adequately consider the voice of the human-powered recreation community and, for many areas, favors development and resource extraction over conservation of the environment and protection of cultural and recreation resources. Perhaps most importantly, Access Fund cannot support legislation that transfers vast tracts of public land and energy leasing authority to state control. We fundamentally oppose plans that can result in the disposal of our public lands.

While the Access Fund prefers a legislative approach that assimilates the input from all stakeholders, we acknowledge that this type of solution is currently unlikely given the divided political climate and limited time frame to pass a bill in Congress. Given these challenges, Access Fund acknowledges that the declaration of a National Monument at Bears Ears may provide the only realistic long-term protections for key lands in San Juan County. Accordingly, we will continue to work toward viable conservation for eastern Utah whether through the PLI or designation of a National Monument, or even a hybrid approach for the 7 counties addressed in the PLI. Stay tuned for updates.