Monumental Decision, Part 2: Arizona and New Mexico
Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase have received top billing in recent coverage of Trump’s executive order on national monuments, but other equally precious public lands in the American West are under the microscope and at risk.
This is part 2 of a series. Read part 1. Read part 3.
If you’ve ever visited Arizona’s Sonoran Desert or Ironwood Forest, you know they’re magical landscapes. They are part of the area marking the globe’s only home for the saguaro cactus. Each unique in its stoic pose, saguaros arms can take 100 years or more to grow. The Native American Tohono O’odham tribe believes every saguaro is embodied by the souls of their ancestors. Surrounded by the army-like figures poised on every hillside and valley of the Sonoran Desert, you can’t help but be entranced with the idea.
The Sonoran Desert is not only the exclusive habitat of rare species such as the saguaro cacti, but it—like Arizona’s Vermilion Cliffs and The Grand Canyon Parashant, as well as New Mexico’s Rio Grand Del Norte and Organ Mountains Desert Peaks—is a sacred playground and discovery zone for outdoor lovers. What’s more, they all provide a livelihood for entire communities in the Southwestern United States. Yet Arizona’s Sonoran Desert and Ironwood Forest are among 27 national monuments currently under review by the Trump Administration’s Department of the Interior.
“We’re glad the monuments are there and glad they’re preserved,” says Zach Mahone, board member of the Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists. The organization builds and maintains trails in the desert (though not in the Sonoran monument). Mahone is familiar with the natural treasures there and in Ironwood Forest, about an hour and a half north of downtown Tucson. “Rescinding some of the monuments would be a travesty.
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“There are amazing ironwood forests out there and a lot of cultural resources—huge quantities of petroglyphs. There are some cool rockwork steps and water troughs. It’s a unique monument,” Mahone says. “I think the issue is long-term planning. Our cities are growing, people are moving farther away, so if these spaces we have now are preserved, they will provide open space for generations to come.”
Matthew Nelson, executive director of the Arizona Trail Association, knows a thing or two about preserving the national monuments for future generations. Over the past few years he has taken hundreds of high school students to the Ironwood Forest for a variety of outdoor classes. He’s intimately familiar with the Vermilion Cliffs, which serve as the spectacular terminus of the 800-mile Arizona National Scenic Trail. Though Nelson recognizes that Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante are the two most vulnerable monuments in Trump’s 27, he fears that down the line, the areas nearest to him might be at jeopardy because of their value to extractive industries.
“The Ironwood Forest sits on the edge of the Silver Bell Mine, and the Sonoran Desert is just primed for mineral resource extraction,” Nelson says. “That’s why it was designated and protected in the first place. Vermilion Cliffs is one of the gems in the monument system. From a scenic resource standpoint, the Cliffs are the most dramatic way to finish the Arizona Trail. You descend from the pine forests of the Kaibab Plateau to the base of a sandstone wonderland with towering blood-red cliffs. To change its borders or rescind the monument’s status would affect the entire 800-mile organism that is The Arizona Trail.”
“Vermilion Cliffs is one of the gems in the monument system…To change its borders or rescind the monument’s status would affect the entire 800-mile organism that is The Arizona Trail.”—Matthew Nelson, executive director of the Arizona Trail Association.
Ultimately, irrecoverable and permanent desecration of these unique landscapes isn’t enough to dissuade some monument opponents or those who’d prefer the land be open to development and extraction. But perhaps those people could be persuaded by a different argument expressed in a more familiar language: money.
“Putting my Sierra Club card away for a minute, my main argument for the protection of monuments and trails is that, in 2015, $11 billion was produced in Arizona by the outdoor industry and mining produced $4.2 billion,” Nelson says. “From the economic standpoint, that’s really easy. Outdoor recreation contributed $11 billion to the economy, and mining contributed $4 billion. It’s three-to-one. And guess what? It’s sustainable and lasts forever.”
Not only is mining unsustainable, but its potential for destruction extends far beyond its cite boundaries.
“Uranium, when exposed to oxygen, becomes deadly. The Navajo Nation has plenty of toxic examples of this, with water sources being poisoned and communities abandoned,” Nelson points out.
One such culprit could be the derelict Copper Mountain Mine located inside the Parashant monument. The mine is suspected of polluting the Grand Canyon and its water sources with copper and uranium. The area in and around Vermilion Cliffs has also been identified as potentially rich in uranium, likely why it has fallen on Trump’s list of monuments to review.
“I don’t think it would happen to Vermilion Cliffs,” says Steve Dotson of Paria Outpost, a photo and hiking tour operator. “Tourism is our number one dollar here, no doubt. It would be a strip mine in the heart of the summit end of the monument. It would hurt all of us.”
All Politics Is Local: Oil and Ideology
New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich has taken a strong stance on the Department of Interior national monument review, and, although he agrees that his state’s monuments—Rio Grande Del Norte and Organ Mountains Desert Peaks—are not in overt danger of being taken over by oil, gas and mineral extraction, he does not discount the possibility of it happening someday if a precedent is set now. As a former guide and operator of New Mexico’s Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions, outdoor recreation and the wilderness are close to his heart.
“I’m intimately familiar with both landscapes, I’ve spent a lot of time biking and hiking in Organ Mountains Desert Peaks and boating in Rio Grand Del Norte. These are landscapes that are personally important to me and places I take my kids,” Senator Heinrich says. “Given the overwhelming outpouring of support from both communities, it would be a misguided step for the Interior to scale back those monuments. I guarantee I would be looking at legislative remedies if that were to happen.”
The senator is most concerned about the future of Organ Mountains. It was U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M. 2nd district)—now part of the Committee on Natural Resources—who explicitly requested that the Trump administration review that monument.
“Congressman Pearce was hostile to its creation from the very start and has advocated scaling it back,” Senator Heinrich says. “The places he wants to eliminate protection for are some of the most important habitat for javelinas, elk and wild game. We have strong support from the hunting community to keep it in the monument. There are also a number of cultural resources—petroglyphs and pictographs, not to mention grazing that is preserved. His opposition is ideological because it’s certainly not an oil and gas production area.”
When it comes to oil and gas, Errol Baade, CEO of OIA member company Jack’s Plastic Welding, which makes inflatable boats, dry bags and self-inflating mattresses in Aztec, New Mexico, understands the full-circle nature of the dilemma. His company manufactures rafts. Rafting relies on pristine waters and scenic canyons, which become compromised once they are open to oil and gas companies, yet the material used to manufacture rafts relies on oil.
“It’s a catch-22,” Baade says. “The outdoor gear is synthetic, made from urethane, which comes from oil. I use oil and gas all the time. If I didn’t have gas, I wouldn’t get to the river put in. But if you put your drainage pond at a point flowing into the Grand Canyon, how’s that going to affect people in Lake Havasu? In Santaquin Valley, are those crops going to start lighting up because of uranium mining? That’s where 80 percent of our fruits and veggies come from.”
Pair this worst-case scenario of rescinding these national monuments and opening them to extractive industry with the fact that Trump is, as Baade points out, “trying to get rid of the EPA,” and America could become a literal wasteland. While nobody wants to believe that outcome is a realistic possibility, anyone who appreciates our protected public lands cannot help but be concerned.
“If a president or an administration is able to change the status of presidentially protected areas—areas that took decades and careful consideration from numerous organizations and interest groups to protect—what does that mean for our national scenic trails?” says Nelson. “What does it mean for the future of public land? The whole monument review was based on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, but everything in between was still included, so hell yes, I’m worried.”
This is part 2 of a series. Read part 1. Read part 3.