By now most folks with any sort of ear to the ground on the ongoing land-leasing debacle in Utah are likely familiar with the story of environmentalist and activist Tim DeChristopher.
In December of 2008, DeChristopher successfully bid on 14 parcels of land (totaling 22,500 acres) near Canyonlands National Park for $1.8 million with no intent to pay for them.
His protest was an effort to thwart a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction of 116 parcels of public lands after a sneaky attempt by the Bush administration to re-write the area’s land-management plans to prioritize energy development. At the time of the auction, DeChristopher was removed from the auction by federal agents, taken into custody, and later served 21 months in prison. He was released in 2013.
Nearly seven years later, the debate over how these federal and public lands are used rages on.
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In an effort to hone in on the discussion, local Flagstaff filmmaker Justin Clifton and the Grand Canyon Trust offer up a new documentary short, Our Canyon Lands, a 35-minute look at the identity of these lands to the American Southwest, the value they hold to the people who are forever connected to them, and the negative impact any further development might welcome in the future.
“There’s something powerful in that sentence,” Clifton says of Teddy Roosevelt’s classic words as the former U.S. president once noted the “sublimity,” “great loneliness” and “beauty” of the Grand Canyon. “The idea of reminding one another that there’s an intrinsic value to these landscapes, to an intact eco-system that is beyond our ability to understand.”
If you’ve ever spent any time in Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah—part of the greater Colorado Plateau—far away from built environments, that sense of understanding has likely become a little clearer. You know how light dances on its canyon walls, how its unique geology and ecology flourishes, the hidden treasures found deep in its canyons, and what it truly means to feel at peace and to be human. But what isn’t often realized is the division of land that runs throughout.
In one single glance your eyes see a sweeping landscape that your mind perceives as a solitary section of the park—but it’s not. In some spots, an arbitrary boundary bisects its beauty. On one side rests protected park land, and on the other, public lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management open for industrial development, particularly by those geared toward pulling fossil fuels from beneath the topsoil.
“You think about the park’s 330,000 acres, and it sounds like a huge amount of space, but to see that delineation once you’re in the park boundaries or inside a protected area looking out, you realize it wouldn’t take much to ruin the intrinsic value of the national park,” Clifton says.
And it is at this intersection of road where the debate heats up. Which direction is the right direction? Is there a direction? And how should the land that is open for development be used … if at all?
Other sides of the fence
With the Escalade Project threatening the confluence of the Colorado River and Little Colorado River, many northern Arizonans are smack in the middle of a similar controversy—one where hungry investors and developers look to cash in on a prized natural wonder with deep meaning to so many people on the opposition.
In Our Canyon Lands, author and activist Terry Tempest Williams says, “I don’t think we can underestimate the scale of this landscape, how big the Colorado Plateau is, but I also don’t think we can underestimate the scale of the threat.”
In the case of Canyonlands National Park, that threat comes through continuing efforts by big oil and gas interests looking to make the Colorado Plateau an energy colony that would provide natural resources for nearby big cities and the West. Industrial operations that require the use of millions of gallons of fresh water—water that is critical to the sustained health of the Colorado River.
“Every aspect of the landscape down to its most minute detail is designed to capture and transport water down to the Colorado River Basin,” Clifton says. He adds, “What’s more important: a small amount of finite resources, or a renewable resource in water?”
On the other side are those bent on preserving the integrity of the park. Over the years multiple proposals have been put in motion to do just that, yet developers continue to threaten these lands with a boom-and-bust approach that would mar the environment and leave the economy to crash and burn. And the age-old back and forth is whether or not the economy should be driven by big industry or recreation, the latter of which in years past has proved a reliable source of revenue that has eclipsed the shortsighted goals of oil and gas companies in Utah’s Canyonlands.
Clifton says the best outcome is one where all stakeholders are considered and layers of protection are put in place that would eliminate the major uses that might potentially decimate the landscape—identifying the culturally sensitive areas, and asking how the park will meet the needs of all of the people who want to use it.
As Walt Dabney, a retired National Park Superintendent, says in the film; alluding to the idea of all parties seeing the issue from the same side: “It’s like a big gold mine, except that you can mine it forever if you don’t screw it up.”
We are of this place
As equally important or perhaps even more so are the generations of Native Americans whose lineage traces back to Utah’s greater Canyonlands region. Like veins that run through the land and those who have inhabited these areas for thousands of years, it is a sacred and important cultural landscape. It makes up and is at the core of who they are. And to lose these landscapes would equate to losing their identity.
The story itself is evolving further. Clifton says that in mid-July, a coalition of 21 different Native American tribes—including Pueblo and Navajo tribes—came together with a unified voice to protect the landscape, specifically Bears Ears, Utah, where the film starts. It’s a groundbreaking movement where instead of conservation organizations trying to garner support from native tribes, the tribes themselves are leading the charge for the designation of a national monument to save this place that holds vast cultural and historical significance.
In the film Daney notes that the national parks “never were made big enough to do what we want them to do. To be unchanged. To be able to function as an ecosystem. To have visitors come here and enjoy them and not have some activity or some development going on in the middle of what should’ve been the park that completely changes the character of that place and compromises it.” Where we are today is these tribes and various conservation organizations continuing to come together to, as Clifton says, “finish this project so all future generations can have the same experience we’re having today.”
All of these places are gifts. They are gigantic jewels in our collective scenic heritage.
Our Canyon Lands will premiere at the Green Room, 15 N. Agassiz, on Thu, Aug. 6. It’s free and open to the public. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the film starts at 6:30 p.m. A Q&A with filmmaker Justin Clifton will follow the screening. View the trailer, learn more, and be a part of the conversation at www.grandcanyontrust.org/our-canyon-lands-film-series. For more info about the Bears Ears Coalition and to donate, see www.bearsearscoalition.org.