The river was cool. The canyon walls were tall, more than a thousand feet high.
We were hiking upstream, wading against a swift current. The farther we went, the more the walls closed in, seeming to grow taller as they narrowed — 100, 50, 30 feet across.
Every twist and turn brought changing views of fantastically sculpted rock, its colors shifting with the passage of the sun. Tight crevices branched off into wildness, teasing the imagination.
That trek up the Virgin River, in a section of Utah’s Zion National Park known as The Narrows, is a sublimely inspiring hike in a part of the country whose rugged and austere beauty has inspired millions of people for generations.
Part of that region is now under threat. President Donald Trump has ordered a review of national monuments created since Jan. 1, 1996. Some could be reduced in size or eliminated. It’s the latest front in the raging battle over public lands in the West.
While the move also applies to monuments created by presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the driving force behind it was Barack Obama’s designation in December of the 1.35-million-acre Bear Ears National Monument in southern Utah.
Critics paint the usual picture: By preserving Bear Ears Obama destroyed jobs, given the land’s potential for oil and gas drilling, mining and other development. Elected officials in Utah were outraged. Trump, with typical apocalypticism, called it a “massive federal land grab” — though the federal government already owned the land.
But the story of Bear Ears, and other national monuments, is more complicated. Because many Utahns supported Obama’s action. Because pitting environmental protection against economic development is a false choice. And because there are all kinds of economic success stories. This is one, too — but it’s not an oil and gas story.
First, about the wonders of Bear Ears: It’s another of Utah’s jaw-droppingly beautiful geological marvels, and it contains countless artifacts, relics, dwellings, petroglyphs and pictographs from ancient residents. Many of the more than 150 monuments designated by presidents since 1906 have later been made national parks by Congress. That’s what happened with Zion.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who must carry out Trump’s order, said it would give states a “meaningful voice” in the process. But the process that led to Bear Ears included seven years of public debate. And whose voice is meaningful? Officials, miners and drillers? What about environmentalists, Indians to whom much of Bear Ears is sacred, and the outdoors industry, which pulled its biggest trade show out of Utah because of the campaign to rescind Bear Ears’ designation?
In 1996, Clinton created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the same region in Utah, thwarting plans for a coal mine. Devastating, elected officials said. Not so fast, the locals say.
In Garfield County, home of the monument, per capita income has risen faster than the rest of Utah. Property values are up. In Escalante — the town abutting the monument — hotels, restaurants and outfitters are thriving, new homes are rising, and a hardware store, dentistry practice and health clinic have opened.
Utahns, by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, think creating Grand Staircase-Escalante was a good idea. And a research firm recently determined that Western counties with protected public lands have grown faster than those with none.
Reversing Bear Ears’ designation is not about boosting the economy. It’s about picking who is going to succeed, and at whose expense.
I’ll pick to preserve the land, for the people who live there and the people who come to hike its canyons and discover its culture.
Inspiration has no price.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.