President Biden, take next step at Grand Staircase-Escalante

The White House is moving forward judiciously in pursuing President Biden’s goal of conserving 30% of the nation’s land, fresh water and ocean areas by 2030. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland delivered her report on the 30×30 initiative at the end of April. A statement of core principles followed, signed by the four Cabinet members charged with “fulfilling the conservation vision” of the president. While we don’t know specifics, Haaland’s report surely includes significant recommendations for Utah’s red rock country.

If America is truly committed to 30×30, we’ll need to protect vast portions of the Colorado Plateau, the canyon country spanning the Four Corners between the Rockies and the Southwest deserts. In southern Utah, park planners have recognized the worthiness and wildness of these one-of-a-kind canyonlands ever since they proposed a gigantic Escalante National Monument in the 1930s.

That dream failed, but our elected leaders have since vindicated its boldness by establishing preserve after preserve within the expanse of the original proposal: Capitol Reef and Canyonlands national parks, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness, and Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments. Few places on Earth have such interconnected extraordinary scenery, cultural history, barely tapped scientific research potential and healthy ecosystems.

The tragic blunder in this incremental journey toward protecting our heritage and legacy came when the previous administration eviscerated the two landmark national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase. Former President Trump reduced Bears Ears by 85% and Grand Staircase by half for purely political reasons.

The people of Utah and the West support these preserves. Utah’s Republican officials, however, resented the actions of the Democratic presidents who proclaimed the monuments. They cried, “Land grab!” even though both monuments were set up in the national interest on federal public land. Rural county commissioners who celebrate the fossil fuel booms of the past but dismiss the inevitability of busts continued to yearn for oil, gas and uranium bonanzas. Trump listened to these extreme voices, not to the people who cherish our public lands.

The Biden-Harris campaign pledged to restore the monuments. In April, Haaland visited Utah, experiencing some of these remarkable places for herself. She listened to monument supporters and opponents, making a special point to honor the voices of local conservationists, backcountry guides and Native people to whom her predecessor, Ryan Zinke, gave short shrift.

President Obama’s establishment of Bears Ears was a remarkable act of reconciliation with America’s Indigenous people. The proposal for the monument came right from the tribes, conceived by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and based on years of mapping important cultural sites on federal lands beyond reservation boundaries. The tribes saw the monument as a place of healing. Biden’s restoration of their full proposal of 1.9 million acres would go far in healing the wounds of Trump’s ill-informed, disrespectful and destructive reversal.

Restoring Grand Staircase-Escalante should be an even easier call for Biden. These canyons and mesas fit the 30×30 vision perfectly. Indeed, the 1996 proclamation that established this national monument, signed by President Clinton, was rooted in science, with language that could have been crafted to support the 30×30 goals: “Remoteness, limited travel corridors and low visitation have all helped to preserve intact the monument’s important ecological values.” An “abundance of unique, isolated communities … have provided refugia for many ancient plant species” and sheltered “… an extraordinary number of areas of relict vegetation … where natural processes continue unaltered.”

Before Trump’s 2017 reduction, Grand Staircase-Escalante existed for a generation as it was first conceived. Congress acknowledged its permanence with laws that adjusted boundaries and traded Utah school trust lands within the monument for $50 million and federal lands elsewhere in the state. Paleontologists consistently make transformative discoveries there. Archaeologists have surveyed just 7% of the monument’s record of 12,000 years of human residence; they need more time; they need support. These scientists need the funding guaranteed by monument status.

And now, we know even more about the importance of Grand Staircase than we did a generation ago: It is a bulwark of resilience to counter the climate crisis.

Trump severed both monuments into disconnected fragments, ignoring decades of ecological insight. As E.O. Wilson makes eloquently clear in his book “Half-Earth,” preserving America’s wildlands at scale connects related landscapes and safeguards migration corridors. Large preserves save more species and protect whole bioregions.

The restoration of Grand Staircase and Bears Ears would reconnect more than 5 1/2 million acres of national parks and preserves, from Bryce Canyon to Canyonlands. This expanse of protected lands builds on other connections to wildlands strung along the spine of the continent, from Grand Canyon to Greater Yellowstone and beyond. As extinction threatens ecosystems across the globe, “arks” such as Grand Staircase-Escalante may become the safeholds from which species can recolonize surrounding areas whose flora and fauna have been lost.

I fervently hope Secretary Haaland’s 30×30 plan begins with restoration of Grand Staircase-Escalante and the expansion of Bears Ears to the full size of the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s proposal. The president has ample science to back up such foresight. The previous administration’s derailment of America’s steady advance toward protecting the inner canyon country of the Colorado Plateau must be a short-term anomaly. We can and should undo that mistake now.

Utah writer Stephen Trimble serves on the board of the nonprofit organization Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners. His most recent book is “The Capitol Reef Reader.”