The colorful hoodoos, slot canyons, cliffs, and plateaus of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument attract visitors from across the globe. Designated in 1996, the monument in southern Utah’s panoramic canyon country has proven to be an economic boon for nearby rural communities. Between 2001 and 2015, personal income jumped 32 percent and jobs grew 24 percent in communities neighboring the national monument, according to a study by Headwaters Economics. Local businesses and the Escalante and Boulder Chamber of Commerce have cited the monument’s designation as the central reason the area’s tourism industry is thriving.
The land is a paleontological museum. Fossils of more than 20 dinosaur species and many never-before-seen prehistoric plants and animals have been found here. Five years ago, the remains of the oldest tyrannosaur fossil found, an 81-million-year-old Lythronax argestes, were recovered from the Kaiparowits Plateau, a part of the monument. According to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the Kaiparowits provides one of the most complete records of the late Cretaceous Period in the world—and less than a quarter of the monument has been inventoried.
The monument is also home to more than 600 native bee species and 300 species of amphibians, mammals, reptiles, and birds—including bald eagles and peregrine falcons. In December 2017, 146 scientists, researchers, and academic organizations signed a letter to President Donald Trump noting the importance of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to scientific research and discovery, calling it a “living laboratory.”
Despite such calls to preserve the monument, Trump signed a proclamation a few days later reducing its size by nearly half. What was left was fragmented into three separate units, eroding important ecological connections across the broader landscape.
Scientific organizations and conservation groups are challenging the administration’s action in federal court. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has nonetheless drafted land use plans for both the smaller monument and the public lands that were removed from it. Its stated preference is to allow for coal mining, oil and gas drilling, and other development on most of the lands removed from the monument—close to 700,000 acres. Some companies have already come forward to stake claims.
Scientists and conservationists are concerned about the impacts of such industrial activity. Many extraordinary places with unique geologic, cultural, and ecological value are no longer inside the monument’s boundaries. Roads, power lines, and truck traffic would forever scar this landscape and harm wildlife habitat. The noise, dust, and lights would diminish recreation—including hunting, bird-watching, and hiking—and outstanding night skies.
Among these lands are significant parts of the Kaiparowits Plateau. Coal companies have been interested in mining the plateau since the 1970s.
The draft plans were released on Aug. 17, 2018, for a public comment period that will end on Nov. 30. While the federal court will determine the validity of the administration’s decision, the BLM planning process could conclude before the court rules. Pew has submitted comments urging the agency to safeguard these lands as directed under the original monument designation, preserving the full 1.9 million acres of wildlife habitat, paleontological sites, and scenic vistas.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a national treasure that should remain fully protected for future generations of Americans. To learn more and to submit a comment on the plans, please visit Pew's Action Alert page.
John Gilroy directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands program.