Tithing for Wilderness

By Steve Allen (July, 2022)
Author and historian Steve Allen is a foremost canyoneer, explorer, and preservationist in the Desert Southwest. He has been hiking and backpacking eight to ten months annually in Southern Utah since the mid-1960s seeking, "history on the ground." Steve has published numerous books featuring Bears Ears and GSENM, including Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes in Utah's Escalante (University of Utah Press, 1997). 
Steve authored an exhaustive two-volume reference, Utah's Canyon Country Place Names: Stories of the cowboys, miners, pioneers, and river runners who put names on the land (Canyon Country Press). Published in 2012, this magnum opus is the result of over 40 years of boots-on-the-ground, conversation with old-timers and Native Americans, and research in historical repositories. 
For decades, Steve has been leading backpacks for environmental groups, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for nonprofit organizations. Steve lives in Durango, Colorado.

Debra Van Winegarden’s Earthline provides a wonderful introduction to scores of hikes in the Southwest. With each listing, Debra notes which Federal agency administers the lands you’ll be enjoying. Each one of these classifications carries a different definition. Some – like Wilderness (with a capital “W”) - provide the most protection to the land, while National Recreation Areas or Undifferentiated BLM or Forest Service lands provide the least. Let’s start by defining each one.

Right now National Monuments are dominating environmental discussions in the southwest. Monuments are the only form of land protection that are decided just by the President; Monuments do not have to be approved by Congress. The President’s Monument Proclamation defines what that particular area is being set aside for.

As an example, one of our newest Monuments – Bears Ears – was established by President Obama in 2016. In his Proclamation Obama made clear that it was to primarily protect the reliquae of the ancients, including the extensive Ancestral Puebloan sites found there.

Bears Ears was downsized by 85% by President Trump in 2017. And, it was reestablished to near its original size by President Biden in 2021. Today the State of Utah is preparing a lawsuit to again deflate the size of Bears Ears NM. Its fate may not be decided by the courts for many years. Examples of other Monuments in the Southwest include Natural Bridges, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Canyons of the Ancients, and Aztec Ruins.

National Recreation Areas are designated by Congress and are managed under a multiple-use mandate, but with recreation being at the forefront. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah is the only one that falls under the purview of Earthline. It covers over 1.2 million acres and includes all of Lake Powell and most of the Escalante River drainage and a long portion of the San Juan River.

Wilderness Areas provide the highest protection available. The Wilderness designation is permanent (within the ever-changing landscape of Congress and the courts). Briefly, the Wilderness Act of 1964 defines Wilderness as an area essentially untrammeled by man, where man is just a visitor, and where development is very limited (trailheads, trail maintenance, etc.). Part of the definition of Wilderness includes the rule that no mechanization is allowed: no bicycles, off-road vehicles, chainsaws, helicopters (except for limited rescue work), etc. Wilderness Areas in the Four Corners region include the Weminuche, South San Juan, Hermosa Creek, and San Rafael Swell (Utah).

Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) first came into play in the West in 1978. They are areas that are supposed to be protected as Wilderness until Congress can carefully look at each individual area and decide if it indeed meets Wilderness criteria. Area examples of WSAs include Handies Peak near Silverton and the Dolores River Canyon. In Utah they include the Dirty Devil River, Mancos Mesa, White Canyon, and many others.

Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands were the first to come under Federal administration (the Forest Service in 1876 and the BLM in 1946). These lands are administered under a mandate of multiple-use, which opens them to logging, road building, oil and gas leasing, mining, off-road vehicle use, etc.

That mandate has not changed over the years and today many of the environmental battles are fought over these lands. Some areas do have a modicum of protection, with designations like ACEC (area of critical environmental concern), or ONA (outstanding natural area). But, these areas have no permanent protection. The La Plata Mountains outside of Durango, the Henry and La Sal mountains in Utah, and a sizeable part of canyon country are a good examples of areas controlled by the Forest Service or BLM.

Those visiting areas described on Earthline are often visiting lands that are under threat, often without realizing it. In the Durango area, the Animas River is vulnerable to toxic mining run-off while the Wolf Creek Pass area is under threat by resort development.

In Utah, Cedar Mesa is threatened by the Easy Peasy Uranium Mine in nearby Cottonwood Wash. Mancos Mesa is constantly being abused by the uncontrolled and illegal use of off-road vehicles. The BLM has proposed opening up certain beaches along the Labyrinth Canyon portion of the Green River – a favorite flat-water section – to off-road vehicle use, which would destroy the quiet equanimity of parts of that now quiet river.

We’ve talked about the possible re-downsizing of Bears Ears National Monument. First, realize that President Trump’s downsizing of Bears Ears had mostly to do with oil and gas development. What would that type of development actually mean to the visitor? A couple of minutes on Google Earth should help clarify the problem.

Search for “Gobernador Canyon New Mexico” on Google Earth and scroll out from there, noting the criss-crossing of access roads and the unimaginable number of drill pads. This is an area called Dinetah. It is an area of mesas and canyons dotted with Pueblitos (Navajo stone houses on top of boulders) and Ancestral Puebloan sites. In the 1950s it was developed as an oil and gas field, with a well every quarter mile or so over its million acres. Today Dinetah is considered a methane hot spot. When the drilling stops, the scars on the land will remain. You can do the same with “Turkey Track Utah” which is on the Tavaputs Plateau (aka the Book Cliffs). This could be the fate of Bears Ears.

Designations like Monument or Wilderness don’t just suddenly happen. Behind every Monument declaration and every Wilderness designation has been a group or several groups pushing – hard – to protect the land. Today we take the Weminuche Wilderness as a given. But, in the 1970s it was a political football, pitting Wilderness proponents against mining, logging, and water rights interests. Every area saved has had a similar battle. Every fight costs money.

The lawsuits to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments are being litigated by a consortium of environmental groups, including Earthjustice, The Center for Biological Diversity, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, Grand Canyon Trust, Western Resource Advocates, and many others.

When we walk the land and grow to appreciate it we need to give back to it. This can take many forms, from working on a trail crew to becoming a riverkeeper or a docent at an archaeological site. One of the most important ways is to donate to the groups that are fighting to protect the land. Many years ago the great canyoneer and mountaineer Ginger Harmon (now 92 and still going strong) came up with the idea of Tithing for Wilderness. Simply put, it means that after every trip, make a donation to the group that is most directly involved with protecting that area. A week on Cedar Mesa could prompt a donation to Friends of Cedar Mesa or Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. If your weekend includes a 14er, how about sending a couple of bucks to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative or Conservation Colorado. One-time donations are always welcome! Better yet, join those groups. Membership numbers are what give these groups power.

I’ve been hiking the lands of Colorado and Utah since the mid-1960s. Every one of those miles has been a treasure. I also have the wisdom gleaned simply from being around for a long time. I’ve seen the changes. What I often wonder is, what if we hadn’t had those environmental groups working to protect the landscapes that we enjoy today? I would posit that many of the areas we explore today would have been despoiled and – like Dinetah – would not even be on our radar as a place to enjoy. Today some areas are getting more crowded (and always remember that if you are there, you are one of the crowd). But what if we had the same number of people crowded into fewer areas? Each one of us has to step up to help protect these areas. Tithe for Wilderness.

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