Saving Sacred Lands — the Grand Staircase Escalante
I celebrate the action of President Biden to restore the monuments of Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase Escalante in southern Utah. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to experience these areas’ sacred and unique beauty, I share a personal account about why their preservation remains significant. My story includes the history of my aunt’s activism in the 1970s to stop a road, which remains central to the area’s remoteness today.
My Family’s History in Utah:
When I was nine years old, my father moved my family from Pittsburgh to Salt Lake City to live near his sister, the late June Viavant. Our families spent significant time hiking, camping, running rivers, and backpacking in southern Utah. My father bought a 4 wheel drive vehicle to access the very remote areas of the state.
My aunt loved the Grand Staircase-Escalante in particular. She spent years hiking and exploring this majestic region and became devoted to protecting it. My aunt loved the spectacular beauty of the unique red rock formations, waterfalls, arches, cliffs, and slot canyons carved through centuries, unique to the Escalante.
In 1996 (unfortunately after my aunt’s death), President Clinton declared the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, covering about 1.8 million acres of land — primarily accessible only by a few rough roads. The area includes:
- The Escalante Canyon (a red rock canyon with a river running through it and many side canyons, including several narrow slot canyons)
- The Kaiparowits Plateau (a wide desert plateau area standing above the nearby lands)
- The Grand Staircase (referring to the layered geology in this extended area)
Raised in New Hampshire, June and her family pioneered camping and backpacking, in the 1950s, long before these activities were popular. My grandfather, a YMCA camp director, and my grandmother, later gave talks on the wildlife and birds of New England. June was always an active political advocate as well. At family dinners, for example, she often required us to write letters to our representatives (in the days before email and online petitions), advocating for the protection of places like the Escalante. When hiking together, she made sure we picked up every bit of litter and never took shortcuts of the trails.
While our families frequently vacationed in southern Utah, Thanksgiving became a favored time to go. With four days off and fewer crowds, we celebrated the holiday in this sanctuary. We camped in Zion National Park or backpacked into the Escalante or Waterpocket Fold, carrying Thanksgiving dinner on our backs. We packed turkey, dressing, homemade sticky buns, pies, and wine to enjoy around a campfire (we skipped some of the vegetables and, of course, ice cream to top the pies!). One of the memorable parts of these trips was sitting around the fire after dinner. In late November, it gets dark early, and we joked about how slow the time passed. We enjoyed singing and sang for what felt like hours when it was only 6:30 or 7:00. “It’s too early to go to bed,” someone would proclaim, but there wasn’t much else to do, so we slept a lot.
On one family trip to Death Hollow, a side canyon of the Escalante canyon, we searched for hours through the desert to find the trailhead as this was the 1970’s and trails were not yet marked. Once we located the steep trail going into the canyon, we had to pass our packs to each other, heavy with Thanksgiving fixings, to maneuver the steep cliffs. We waded through water up to our waists, on another trip, carrying our packs above our heads. We hiked through places where a stream had carved basins in the rock, with one beautiful pool following another. We camped beneath a large overhang and explored native American ruins not seen by others. We experienced the quiet, awe, and reverence of places largely untouched by humans.
June’s Political Activism to Stop the Highway:
June treasured the solitude and wildness of Grand Staircase-Escalante. She spent a lot of time backpacking in this area backpacking and she became passionate about preserving it. She worked as a school counselor in Salt Lake City, and I think what she liked best about the job was the time off it afforded her to spend in southern Utah.
In the late 1960s, June co-founded the Escalante Wilderness Committee with Ruth Frear. June and Ruth argued before the US Senate in 1970 to halt the proposed Trans-Escalante highway. The road would have cut through the heart of the Escalante wilderness, ruining its remoteness. They gathered letters from hundreds of people who expressed their intent for it to be kept wild.They testified before the US Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation.
In her testimony to the US Senate in 1970, June argued for the value of maintaining it as wilderness, stating:
The Escalante is a contrast of the huge and the minute, of openness and hidden glens — an endless expanse of Forty-Mile Bench complemented by walls eighteen inches apart, hundreds of feet high in Davis Gulch. It displays the beginnings in its massive sandstone walls, the end in its fragile ferns. The Escalante is a little of the Grand Canyon, some of Bryce and Zion, a reminder of Mesa Verde, and the last great remnant of Glen Canyon — but it possesses a unique spirit of its own. (United States Senate, 1970, p. 78)
She went on to describe her experience of the spirituality of the region:
Who can stand within the perfection of the Escalante and not in some way experience a hint of the supernatural? We all have our personal religions. To some of us, wilderness is the place worship; of what, depends on the individual. One man sees desert canyons as a hell of a place to lose a cow. Another stands alone on the rim of the Escalante Canyon and thinks ‘Perhaps when God was driven from Glen Canyon, He came to live in the Escalante.’ We can approach this beautiful, ecologically fragile area with the care and the love of a people that respects and values its last few remaining pockets of wilderness, or we can come with bulldozers and pavement, blasting our way across them. People deserve to have a chance to be drawn into the Escalante naturally — to follow a canyon stream or a canyon rim on foot, wondering what is around the next bend. (United States Senate, 1970, p. 79)
It is worthy to note that she also specifically addressed the value of the area for mining and drilling in her testimony. She referenced a document called “Geology of the Circle Cliffs Area, Garfield and Kane Counties, Utah, United States Geological Survey Bulletin #1229, Prepared on behalf of the US Atomic Energy Commission.” She reported that the document states: “The uranium deposits are small, and opportunity for discovery of any large deposits seems poor.” She goes on to comment: “no mines of consequence have yet been developed and the depth of burial would preclude its exploration in many places. No pattern of ore bodies of significant size exists to allow confident prediction of more ore bodies.” Additionally, she references the problem with drilling for oil in the area related to the lack of abundant water which remains an issue today (United States Senate, 1970, p. 80).
In Canyon Country Zephyr in 2015, Ken Sleight praised the conservation work of Ruth and June, stating:
…speaking of the Sierra Club, I’ll never forget the valiant and hard work of two of their most able leaders, Ruth Frear and June Viavant. They helped stop the proposed Trans-Escalante highway that would have stretched from Bullfrog to Wahweap marina. The road would have bridged across the Escalante canyon just downstream from Stevens Arch and Coyote Gulch. This was one of the environmentalists’ finest hours in Utah. (Sleight, paragraph 31)
The Fragile Environment: Biological Soil Crust
While June publicly defended the Escalante, she also taught us about the crust covering much of the open desert of southern Utah, which takes many years to form. The vast expanses of land between the beautiful canyons look barren, lifeless, and desolate, but on this, we learned, lives a fragile crust unique to this environment. My aunt implored us to be mindful of where we walked to minimize the damage to this delicate crust, as even a single step can destroy it.
The fragile crust — called “biological soil crust” — consists of various organisms, including lichen, mosses, green algae, microfungi, and bacteria. Together they work to control erosion and hold water to allow plants to grow in the dry environment. One of these organisms — called cyanobacteria, or green-blue algae — is believed to be among the first living organisms on Earth! Amazingly, it can take thousands of years for this crust to form (NPS, 2020). In building roads and development of all types, fragile organisms would experience irreparable damage, including extinction.
The Bees of the Escalante — Who Knew?!!
I have recently learned that the Grand Staircase is also home to over 650 unique species of bees! Bee biologist Olivia Messinger Carril, and a team of volunteers, spent four years researching bees in the area. They found huge numbers of bees varying in size, colors, and shapes. (Zimmer, 2018) Carril and her crew produced a film about their work titled: The Bees of Grand Staircase Escalante. (You can view this interesting film at this link: https://beesofgsenm.com)
On the topic of roads, the film shows a large group of bees that lived in the unpaved, dry road going through the national monument. Sadly, a road crew using heavy equipment to grade the road devastated these bees, even after the researchers informed them of the existence of the bees and requested that they work around them. In watching the film, I reflected on the number of species of bees that would have been lost, if the road my aunt and her colleagues effectively stopped in the 1970s, had been built.
Many bee species, along with the fragile ecosystem, risked permanent damage in the recent reduction of the size of the national monument. This policy of dominance, which continues to permeate the political landscape in the United States, does not respect the needs of the other. Dominance accepts the destruction of anything in its way, especially if viewed as inferior, vulnerable, or fragile. Further, policy based on dominance does not tend to what comes after it.
Prayers, Gratitude, and Celebration
And so, I speak in honor of this tender place.
I speak for the right of untamed places to exist and of their need for protection. I speak about the incredible resiliency of life forms to thrive and adapt in even the harshest of conditions and the ability of fragile life forms to be damaged irreparably by a single action or series of actions.
I honor the efforts of people like my aunt and so many others who dedicate their lives to protecting fragile, remote environments and ecosystems so they may thrive and endure.
I hear echoes of the centuries of ancestors who called this land home, on the people who currently live there, and the expectations of generations to come who wish to enjoy this wild and wonderful planet.
I acknowledge the value of the vulnerability within every one of us, which these lands reflect.
Today I celebrate the win for places like this whose abundant riches lie in something far more significant than in the finite resources that we can extract from them.
The words of June from the introduction of the book Slickrock: Endangered Canyons of the Southwest published in 1971 ring true to me: “Much has been done to protect these wild, beautiful, lonely places. Much remains to be done. We can win many successive steps of a conservation battle, but we can lose only once” (Abbey, p. 14.) Gratefully, wildness has won again.
Abbey, E., Hyde, P. (1971). Slickrock: endangered canyons of the southwest. Sierra Club/Charles Scribner’s Sons
National Park Service. (2020, Feb 15) Biological soil crust of southeast Utah. https://www.nps.gov/articles/seug-soil-crust.htm
Sleight, K. (2015, June 1). Canyon Country Zephyr. Ken Sleight remembers, part 5: the 60s, “memories of Escalante.” Retrieved from: https://www.canyoncountryzephyr.com/2015/06/01/ken-sleight-remembers-part-5-the-60s-memories-of-escalante-by-ken-sleight/
United States Senate. Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreational Area. Hearing before the Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. (1970). Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?id=KwTx470b8t8C&pg=PP1&lpg=PP1&dq=United+States+Senate.+Canyonlands+National+Park+and+Glen+Canyon+National+Recreational+Area.+Hearing+before+the+Subcommittee+on+Parks+and+Recreation+of+the+Committee+on+Interior+and+Insular+Affairs.+(1970)&source=bl&ots=bUBoEb6vXN&sig=ACfU3U1l4a1i-5a6Ba3lkVMEZshkjdl8KA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiA98y0y73zAhUdonIEHdwfAVIQ6AF6BAgDEAM#v=onepage&q=United%20States%20Senate.%20Canyonlands%20National%20Park%20and%20Glen%20Canyon%20National%20Recreational%20Area.%20Hearing%20before%20the%20Subcommittee%20on%20Parks%20and%20Recreation%20of%20the%20Committee%20on%20Interior%20and%20Insular%20Affairs.%20(1970)&f=false
Zimmer, K. (2018, December 17). National Geographic. 660 species of bees live in the newly shrunk national monument. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/bee-city-at-risk-after-grand-staircase-escalante-divided