Native American leaders have invited themselves to the table to gather input on public lands management in San Juan County, southeast Utah. Sacred places and important biological areas were identified by Native American elders, spiritual leaders, hunters, gatherers and conservation scientists to form the boundaries of a 1.9 million acre proposal in 2010, now called the Bears Ears for the geologic formation bearing the same name: a pair of buttes in the Manti-Sal National Forest. Utah Diné Bikéyah was formed and continues to provide support for the Bears Ears Coalition, which includes 26 Native American Nations. EcoFlight is providing overflights for the proposal, which will protect areas like Cedar Mesa, Dark Canyon and White Canyon, and preserve their wildness, cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, spiritual significance and recreational opportunities, including climbing access to Indian Creek. Supporters are working with Congress to protect the area as a National Conservation Area, and are also asking the President to designate it as a monument if Congress cannot get the job done.
Beautiful, wild, spiritual and cultural. The spectacular landscape that is known as the Badger Two-Medicine is sacred to the Blackfeet Nation, and the only remaining wild land in the Rocky Mountain Front that is not protected for posterity. This 165,000 acre area is threatened by the Hall Creek Lease, which has been owned by Sidney Longwell for over 30 years, although the lease has been suspended for much of that time. The Federal Court ruled in July 2015 that the USFS should submit and stick to an accelerated schedule for determining whether to lift the suspension. Of the original 47 leases, most have been retired. 18 existing leases and 4 owners remain, with only this one actively seeking to drill. The Blackfeet tribe, conservation groups, and Senator Tester counter that these leases are invalid, and should never have been issued in the first place, because NEPA and Endangered Species Act reviews were not fully conducted, and the Blackfeet tribe was not consulted. The Department of the Interior can use their statutory authority to cancel these leases. EcoFlight recently flew multiple overflights to bring media attention to this issue, and we ask that Secretary Sally Jewell use her authority to protect this unique area, located at the intersection of the Blackfeet Reservation, Glacier National Park land the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
More than 100 years ago President Theodore Roosevelt designated the Grand Canyon as a national monument, and since then a fair bit of the Grand Canyon ecosystem has been protected. But the watershed immediately surrounding the national park, which includes tributary canyons, grasslands and springs that flow into the Colorado River and Grand Canyon, is still threatened by grazing, increasing motorized use, logging and uranium mining. Citizens are proposing the 1.7 million acre Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument for the area to preserve habitat for endemic and endangered wildlife species, life-sustaining creeks and springs, and for its historic significance for multiple Native American tribes. The President has the power to protect the area through the Antiquities Act. EcoFlight is working with our partners to provide the aerial perspective of this watershed to raise awareness and build support around the campaign to secure lasting protection for this iconic landscape.
In addition to EcoFlight’s advocacy work, we provide the aerial perspective to scientists who are working on the ground and in the air to research and restore lands for their native species. We recently teamed up with EcoFlight’s long-time friend, Wally MacFarlane, a watershed sciences researcher at Utah State University, to look at riparian and in-stream habitat in the Price River watershed in Utah. As water demands and climate change place more stress on already over-allocated streams, invasive species take advantage, which is bad news for endangered native desert fish here. Wally is working to identify areas suitable for habitat restoration. “The flight allowed us to collect oblique geo-tagged images that we use to generate a virtual flight of the river corridor. This is a key dataset for our detailed riparian vegetation analysis”. Wally has been working for years with geo-technology and flying scientific aerial surveys with EcoFlight, including the first-ever aerial inventory of white bark pine beetle impacts in Greater Yellowstone.
The Boulder-White Clouds is a hot topic and one of continuing debate in Idaho. For many years, Idahoans have worked to conserve these mountains, one of the largest unprotected roadless areas in the lower 48; and to strike a balance between protection, access and responsible use. From the air it is clear that the Boulder-White Clouds merit protection. The area’s 582,932 roadless acres harbor a wide range of wildlife, an abundant source of fresh clean water, and provide a recreational haven to mountain bikers, anglers, hikers and wilderness advocates. EcoFlight is working this summer with a diversity of groups ranging from grassroots groups like Sportsmen for Boulder-White Clouds, to regional - Idaho Conservation League, national- The Wilderness Society, and international – International Mountain Bike Association. We are working collaboratively to fly passengers who care about the future of this landscape, protecting it as a national monument or through wilderness legislation the Idaho delegation has introduced. We are flying key supporters, press, business leaders and diverse stakeholders.
How to get from here to there is sometimes not as easy as it sounds. Especially when you are looking at protecting public lands. Public lands are owned by all Americans, and in this day and age that represents a lot of diverse ownership, along with a myriad of opinions, and is often driven by social media and political agendas.
And there are many different ways to protect these public lands: through legislation as Wilderness or through the avenues of the acronym designations such as NRA (National Recreation Area), NCA (National Conservation Area), etc., or the President can use his authority to create a national monument through the Antiquities Act. National monument status might be the last resort for many of our iconic landscapes to be protected, such as the Greater Canyonlands, the Bears Ears, or the lands surrounding the Grand Canyon.
On recent Bears Ears flights, representatives from the Ute Mountain Utes, Navajos, Paiutes, Hopi, Zuni, Pueblo, Hualapai and other tribes, together with conservationists and elected officials weighed in on the need for protections for southern Utah lands, and the possibility of legislative or alternative protections. The legislative option, colloquially known as The Grand Bargain, which is proposed by Rep. Bishop of Utah, is considered by many to be not very grand and not much of a bargain. It involves massive land swaps, and is problematic as Bishop also supports the ideological flavor of the day, the incredibly bad idea of trading federal lands back to the states for management and/or for sale. In my humble opinion, this is a particularly shortsighted idea.
Then there are the Boulder-White Clouds, home to the headwaters of the mighty Salmon River, located outside of Sun Valley, Idaho. A landscape that has been begging for protection for decades, through numerous iterations. Wilderness quality lands are abundant in these mountain ranges but the political climate for wilderness is not great. However, national monument has become a welcome alternative idea, through the advocacy of a diverse constituency, with compromises from the mountain biking and ranching communities. However, a national monument for the Boulder-White Clouds will be the goal if Congress does not pass Simpson’s wilderness bill.
The hard work and consistent endeavor of people who live on the land, people who care for the land, and people who manage the land, not to mention people who fly over the land, is paying off. With legislative efforts such as the recently passed Heritage Act for the Rocky Mountain Front, or the newly created Browns Canyon National Monument, fragile and special wild lands are being protected. One of EcoFlight’s mottos is that the aerial perspective “gives the land a voice”. That voice is speaking to concerned citizens across the West.