KANAB, Utah (CN) – Millions of years before human existence, much less monument designations, a colossal stairway laid its foundation on the northern rim of the Grand Canyon. Over time, tectonic shift exposed the youngest rock layers of the Colorado Plateau: chocolate, vermillion, white, gray and pink cliffs. The five giant steps, which geologist Clarence Dutton first called the “Grand Staircase” in the 1870s, ascend northward hundreds of miles to Bryce Canyon, creating much of the picturesque topography in Southern Utah.
For many Southern Utahns, the geologic wonder invokes less inspiring memories. In 1996, President Bill Clinton held the declaration for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona instead of Utah, where the entirety of it exists.
“I think that didn’t get off to a good start,” said monument spokesman Larry Crutchfield. When Crutchfield took the job in 2005, many locals made it clear to him they were unhappy with the monument.
“People felt that the establishment of the monument shut them out,” Crutchfield said. “They felt the boundaries were drawn and it was taken away from them. This was land that their families had used for generations, enjoyed and, in their minds, took very good care of. I think they saw it as a taking.”
Renewing the decades-long controversy, President Donald Trump in April ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review all national monuments created after 1996 and larger than 100,000 acres.
In May, Zinke toured the 1.8 million-acre Grand Staircase as part of a four-day visit to Utah, which also included the newly designated and up-for-review Bear Ears National Monument.
“You remember when this monument was formed, the governor of Utah read it in the paper. Remember that,” Zinke told reporters on his last day in the state. “This is the first time we’ve given locals a say.”
But some activists believe the administration will remove Grand Staircase’s protections and hand it over to special interests – the oil, gas and mining industries that donated generously to key Republican campaigns, including Trump and Zinke.
For Mary Ellen Kustin, director of policy for the Center for American Progress, the connection raises a red flag.
In a column Kustin wrote for the think tank last month, she called the executive order a “thinly veiled land seizure.”
An analysis by Conservation Science Partners recently found Grand Staircase is at 72 percent higher risk of oil and gas development and 37 percent higher risk for mineral resources than “similarly sized Western landscapes,” Kustin wrote.
Although Clinton’s proclamation halted construction of a new coal mine on the Grand Staircase, five existing oil wells operated by Citation Oil and Gas in the Upper Valley Oil Field were allowed to remain active.
Discovered in 1964 by Tenneco, the oil field sits in the Kaiparowits Basin, 10 miles southwest of the town of Escalante.
In 2014, hikers reported to the Bureau of Land Management that a four-mile stretch of Little Valley Wash, 54 miles upstream from Escalante River, was covered in a layer of oil.
The agency later determined the oil leaked during three separate spills: two large ones from decades ago amounting to an estimated 550 barrels, and one from a “pinhole leak” in December 2013 that spilled around 10 barrels of oil – enough to fill about 10 standard-sized bathtubs.
“At present, the most lasting impact of these spills appears to be to the remote, scenic, and unspoiled natural quality [of the monument],” the agency said in a 2014 report. “BLM will continue to monitor natural resource conditions in Little Valley Wash, with particular attention to the quality of water flowing from seeps and the health of the native vegetation.”
Citation Oil and Gas was “put on notice” to report any spill, no matter the size, in the future.
“To not maintain something like this would be a disaster,” said Gertjan Degraaff, a Dutch citizen currently living in New York. Earlier this month, Degraaff asked the hotel concierge where he was staying for a unique hike recommendation. That’s how he and his traveling companion ended up at the Toadstools.
A 1.5-mile trek through a sandy wash leads you to an otherworldly crop of rock formations resembling giant mushrooms.
“It’s like you’re alone on the moon,” Degraaff said.
The monument debate, for ranchers, focuses not on mushroom-shaped rocks or the oil within the Staircase, but the grass that sits on top of it.
“It’s really funny because [grazing] is a sore spot for everyone,” Crutchfield said. “People who don’t like grazing are mad at us for grazing, but it’s in the [monument] proclamation and it’s a permitted use. People who graze say, ‘Well, the monument boundaries have restricted grazing.’”
In an opinion piece for the Salt Lake Tribune last month, the Utah Farm Bureau Federation applauded Trump’s decision to review Grand Staircase.
“National monument designations in [Kane, Garfield and San Juan] counties have, and will continue, to adversely impact generations-old sheep and cattle ranching families, as well as other multiple uses such as recreation and resource development,” Farm Bureau president Ron Gibson wrote.
Some environmentalists see cattle-grazing on Grand Staircase as an encroachment on areas that need to be preserved.
Conservation group Grand Canyon Trust said in a statement that more than 96 percent of the monument’s acres are in actively grazed allotments.
“Thus, cattle grazing is occurring on top of important biological, scientific, and historical values for which the monument was established, such as fragile biological soil crusts, uncommon and endemic plant species, and ancient cultural artifacts,” the group said.
For Merle Graffam, a park ranger at the monument’s Big Water Visitor Center, Grand Staircase represents an area full of prehistoric treasures waiting to be excavated. Graffam began finding dinosaur bones in 1997 on daily walks in the area and later during fieldwork led by the Museum of Northern Arizona.
“My whole life turned over when I started to find ancient marine reptiles,” Graffam said, a small silver replica of an excavating tool that he calls his “totem” dangling from a chain around his neck.
During the Cretaceous Period, the Big Water Visitor Center where Graffam works was submerged under about 300 feet of sea water, teeming with sharks and marine reptiles. Some plesiosaurus in the area grew up to 30 feet long and had four-foot wide skulls with four-inch teeth.
Since excavations began, excavators have registered 4,000 sites in the monument, unearthing bones from some species found only on the Grand Staircase. When that happens, Graffam says, the excavating teams get to name them.
“I do have a dinosaur named after me,” Graffam said. In 1999, Graffam found a toe bone of a new species near Bryce Canyon: Graffam’s slothclaw.
Zinke made it clear to reporters that he did not agree with the how the monument was created, yet he emphasized the importance of preserving certain areas, like those containing dinosaur bones.
“I think the United States should do everything possible to maintain this natural treasure,” Degraaff said, nearing the end of his hike.
It is unclear whether past designations can be completely repealed, because it has never been done before. Any changes to the monument’s status will likely face lengthy court battles.
Geologists often refer to the Grand Staircase as a living history book. In that sense, Zinke’s monument review is one sentence in a boundless time capsule spanning the rise and fall of the dinosaurs and the evolution of humans.
As Zinke hurries to finish his recommendations, the Grand Staircase continues simply existing, idly churning out more layers of earth’s vibrant crust as it has done for millennia.
Courthouse News has been providing in-depth features on some of the national monuments targeted for closure or reduction by the Trump administration, including the Sonoran Desert National Monument in Arizona and Giant Sequoia National Monument and Sand to Snow National Monument, both in California.