In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt used the brand-new Antiquities Act to establish 800,000 acres of northern Arizona as Grand Canyon National Monument. Ranchers, sportsmen and politicians were angry, claiming their access to the land and their ability to make money from it would be curtailed. Roosevelt stood firm, and in 1919, the monument became Grand Canyon National Park. Through the lens of history, virtually everyone agrees that Roosevelt was absolutely right to set aside such a large tract of land.
We now must defend the future of a similar piece of land in southern Utah. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument lies directly in the crosshairs of Utah politicians (and the Trump administration), who want to gut the monument, reducing its size by as much as 75 percent. Among other reasons, they assert that most of the 1.9 million-acre monument is useless “vanilla” land and that nothing important will be lost in removing this acreage from monument protection.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. As a paleontologist and author, I know the portion of the monument that receives less press but is the crux of this whole battle. The Kaiparowits Plateau is an irreplaceable repository of our continent’s past. Between 75 million and 90 million years ago, the Kaiparowits was home to great swamps and rivers. Exuberant plant growth supported an equally vigorous fauna, including dozens of species of dinosaurs and other ancient creatures.
The fossils from this monument have proved to be of global significance and have made Utah a world-renowned paleontological mecca. Stories in national and international publications have introduced literally millions of people to the region. Nearly every week during field season something extraordinary is found, and scientists have only begun to scratch the surface of what is out there.
Not coincidentally, the Kaiparowits Plateau is also home to coal deposits formed from those ancient plants, and as such it is the main area that Utah politicians would like to remove from the monument. They are pushing to keep a much smaller scenic area around the towns of Escalante and Boulder — and to sacrifice the lands that have the greatest concentration of these significant fossils.
In the case of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the Antiquities Act was invoked to preserve not just a few archeological sites or one particularly pretty canyon. According to the 1996 declaration, the monument was designated “to protect myriad historic and scientific resources” in the region. The current boundaries of the monument reflect this mandate, and they were determined through intensive study with the National Biological Survey and a host of scientists from several disciplines. There was a very good reason to create this monument and to make it the size it is.
A century ago, Roosevelt saw the need to use the Antiquities Act to protect large areas of land that encompass important biological, archeological and paleontological resources. His prescience gave us one of the most iconic and beloved pieces of public land in the world.
We now have a choice. A century from now we can be living with and learning from an intact, healthy and thriving Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The alternative will be to try to explain to our children why we let our politicians and a few special interests destroy a unique and important piece of our country’s heritage.
Christa Sadler is the author of "Where Dinosaurs Roamed: Lost Worlds of Utah’s Grand Staircase." She is a paleontologist, author and wilderness and river guide from Flagstaff, Arizona. She has lived in the region for more than 30 years.