American Whitewater Analysis–National Monument Reductions
By: Evan Stafford
American Whitewater sprang out of the need to rally our community around our shared love for whitewater, to protect, restore and celebrate the rivers that have given us so much. When the President of the United States announced his intentions to reduce in size Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly half, we wanted to first see how the new borders would affect the protections these Monuments afforded several spectacular whitewater resources within their current boundaries.
The Lower San Juan River:
Protecting the Bears Ears Monument region had been a significant priority for American Whitewater, primarily because the area encompasses this incredible run. With vast archeological resources, a geologically marvelous and deep canyon, reliable flows and family-friendly whitewater, the Lower San Juan is one of the finest multi-day river trips in the country. When Bears Ears was designated last year we cheered the protections it brought but were also disappointed that the entire river corridor was not included, with a section 18.7 miles above, and 6.8 miles below Mexican Hat remaining outside the Monument boundaries, a compromise stakeholders had asked for in the Public Lands Initiative (PLI).
Under the reduced Monument boundaries a 3.3 mile section above the standard put-in at Sand Island and an 11.5 mile section below Mexican Hat to the Goosenecks would fall outside the Monument.
The Colorado River:
Much like the San Juan formed the southern boundary, the Colorado River downstream from Moab formed the northernmost boundary of Bears Ears National Monument. The boundary lined up with Canyonlands National Park providing contiguous landscape-level protection for the river above the confluence with the Green River near Cataract Canyon. This is the most common run to start a multi-day Cataract Canyon trip and is also used for shorter trips, especially for canoes, with a popular jet boat shuttle back from the confluence.
Under the reduced Monument boundaries 13.6 miles of the Colorado River below Moab would lose the protections they enjoyed under Bears Ears original Monument boundaries.
Bears Ears by the Numbers
Original monument: 34 miles (San Juan and Colorado Rivers)
Reduced monument: 5.6 miles
Affected river miles 28.4 (84%)
Colorado River 13.6 miles
San Juan River 14.8 miles
The landscape surrounding the Escalante River, for which Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is partially named, houses some of the southwest’s most legendary terrain. Mythic slot canyons drop off the plateau into the canyon where semi-rare desert flows allow a floating tour of these cathedral like confluences.
Under the reduced Monument boundaries the Escalante River and surrounding landscape would remain in one of three proposed new Monuments.
The Paria River is a rarely paddled but incredible slot canyon, 5.5 miles of which were included in the original Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument boundary. The entire 5.5 miles falls outside the reduced Monument boundaries. (Go here for a read on the second descent of the Paria in the American Whitewater Journal)
Grand Staircase-Escalante by the Numbers
Original monument : 26.7 miles (Escalante and Paria Rivers)
Reduced monument: 21.2 miles
Affected river miles: 5.5 (21%)
Paria River: 5.5 miles
Monument designations arise out of local input and culminate in the public asking the President to use the Antiquities Act to permanently protect places with significant natural, cultural, or scientific features. American Whitewater was engaged in protection efforts and advocated that under any protection plan, legislative or executive, whitewater boating be recognized as an appropriate and valued recreation activity. When Bear Ears was designated we were proud that through our stewardship work and your public input, the proclamation recognized the world-class recreational opportunities of the Monument, and specifically included whitewater paddling as one of those activities allowing the public to experience and enjoy the objects of historic and scientific interest that Monument protects. In the new proclamations, recreation is not identified as a valuable resource and it is therefore unclear which, and even if, recreation activities will remain acceptable uses inside the new boundaries. Monuments do not necessarily protect recreation access, and so ensuring that access for paddling continues will be one of our top priorities moving forward.
National Monuments protect miles of whitewater rivers across the country. The Taos Boxes of the Rio Grande River, Browns Canyon of the Arkansas River, and the Yampa and Green Rivers in Yampa Canyon and Gates of Lodore are all protected by National Monuments. A number of National Monuments, including the Grand Canyon, were later designated National Parks by Congress. (A complete list of Monuments that protect whitewater resources can be found here). We have referred to these designations as, “permanent protections.” Rescinding large portions of these designated lands represents a significant threat to our ability to provide rivers with long-term protections. If our public lands protections are turned on and off as administrations come and go, over time we'll lose many of the values we cherish most about these places.
These vast reductions in size (1.1 million acres, or 85 percent, of Bears Ears, and 800,000 acres, or 45 percent of the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument) are controversial and we expect them to be held up in courts with at least five lawsuits challenging this Executive action. We also see opportunities to improve these rivers protections through legislative action that is beginning to take shape, where new boundaries for Bears Ears may protect the entire San Juan River corridor. Wherever these designations land you can expect American Whitewater to be a part of the process, relentlessly advocating for policies that benefit the paddling community and the rivers that bind us.