San Juan River, photo courtesy of Nicole Silk.
 In River Restoration and Protection, Urgent Issues

Why National Monuments Matter to Our Rivers

Nearly 20 years ago, in the late summer, an unexpected storm sat somewhere over Bears Ears National Monument. I was guiding a trip down the San Juan River with friends and family. We had just returned from a hike up Slickhorn Canyon, one of the creases in the goosenecks that define this section of river, seeking refuge from the sun. We glimpsed granaries and ancient dwellings built by Native Americans who called the area home far before Europeans “discovered” America. We sat by tranquil pools in the heat of the day.

After our hike we returned to our boats to unpack and set up camp for the evening. We noticed a quickening of the water flowing down Slickhorn and, over just a few minutes, that increased flow became a flash flood. Over the next 12 hours, Slickhorn tumbled rocks and water downstream and the San Juan River changed from green to brown and then, finally, red as it swelled from a low 800 cubic feet per second (CFS) to a very high 10,000 CFS. Slickhorn flashed–as did every tributary on that river. We were in wild territory, unable to control or predict what would happen next, leaning heavily on our intuition and outdoor skills. It was magical.

This part of the world has been a place of refuge and recovery for me for 30 years. Now it is cherished by my children, too. Its treasures include breathtaking sandstone formations sculpted and polished by thousands of years of wind and precipitation, pine forest pockets, sacred sites and ancient art, countless artifacts, desert rivers, and prehistoric fish. Here are remote sections of landscape where no cell signal can reach, where the night sky remains unaltered by city or industrial light, where you might go for weeks or even months without seeing another person. It is also a place where the weather can change rapidly, the climate is fickle. Here, wild still runs free and water is particularly precious.

President Trump’s decision to radically shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, if allowed to stand, will change this landscape irrevocably into perpetuity. In the acres stripped of national monument status, coal, oil, and uranium extraction and mining will accelerate. Such actions not only come as an affront to the legacies of former Presidents Clinton and Obama, but also cut deeply into the protection of all wild places in America– even the very idea that wild can exist in today’s world supported by Republican and Democrat, urban and rural citizens alike. Reducing the size of these monuments weakens the Antiquities Act, a tool of permanent protection for significant natural areas and cultural resources. The Trump administration has now made its public lands doctrine clear.

What about water? The new administration’s stance on public land is not favorable to clean water and healthy rivers. Our public lands are sources of our water supply and serve as water banks for long-term sustainability and reliability. They provide this necessity without expense, if we take care of them. Coal, oil, and uranium extraction and mining are water-intense activities. And where these activities result in water pollution, the contaminants will find their way into rivers. In short, the change in status will carry threats to water quantity and water quality. Shrinking these national monuments does not make America great.

Tribal leaders, the largest landowner within Bears Ears National Monument, local governments, community organizations, and companies are against this change. Here at River Network, we will continue to support all who protect these wild lands and waters. We hope you will do the same.

Leave a Comment