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Utah’s Bears Ears Lawsuit is Absurd

Climbing caught up with Chris Winter, Executive Director of the Access Fund, to talk about what this means for climbers, local tribes, and the long-term health of the region.


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On Wednesday, August 24, Utah’s Attorney General Sean Reyes—backed by a powerful coalition of the state’s conservative powerbrokers—sued the Biden Administration over its restoration of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Utah argues that the size of the monuments, which together amount to some 3.2 million acres, contradicts the Antiquities Act of 1906 and constitutes “abusive federal overreach.” The attorney general also says that the protections afforded by monument status are, paradoxically, having a negative effect on both the environment and tribal access to important cultural sites, and that only by repealing the monument status and coming to a “congressional solution” can the land be properly protected.

Climbing caught up with Chris Winter, Executive Director of the Access Fund, to chat about whether these claims are credible, what this means for climbers, and what climbers can do about it.  

“What they’re doing is totally out of touch with what the wider public wants to see, so they’re having to frame what they’re doing in a way that I think is disingenuous and doesn’t accurately reflect what they’re trying to get done. It’s our job, in that case, to hold the state accountable, to try to speak truthfully about their inaccurate framing. That’s our job.” — Chris Winter

Climbing: The state of Utah is positioning itself as environmental stewards here, claiming that monument status actually hampers environmental conservation in the region. Is that anything more than just cynical posturing?

Winter: Our position is that the tribes know best. As an organization of climbers, we’re supporting their vision, which is for national monument protection. So I think we should support and listen to the tribes. And the state of Utah is calling for something that’s much different from what they want.

Climbing: That’s interesting because the state is alleging that this is better for the tribes, which, they say, are inhibited from “engaging in traditional cultural practices” by the designation. But the tribes have been pushing for monument status for decades, and they’re now (as of June) actually playing a role in the management of Bears Ears. What’s your sense of tribal support for this lawsuit? 

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Winter: This has been an ongoing discussion for decades. The tribes have been calling for the protection of this incredible cultural landscape. Utah has historically pushed back against permanent protections. The tribes have called for a monument, they’ve called for permanent legislative solutions, and we’re just supporting what they want to see done. I think we should be skeptical about Utah calling for some other kind of protection.

The statement issued by Utah’s attorney general and his supporters.

Climbing: Utah is seeking a “congressional solution” as opposed to the monument solution. What does that entail? 

Winter: So the Antiquities Act is an incredible piece of legislation. Over the history of the Antiquities Act, lots of places have first been protected by the president and then later protected by Congress. Oftentimes that happens in the context of national park designations. Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon—those are specific examples of places that were first protected as national monuments and then Congress said, “We’re going to protect these places permanently, in addition to that, as national parks.” So here, for Bears Ears, we ask that Congress support the leadership of the tribes. The tribes have asked Congress for permanent protections in the past, so we think Congress can step in and respect and honor their vision. And that doesn’t have to be in the form of a national park. When people say, “Let’s get something done in Congress,” we say, “Great, let’s do it.” But that doesn’t mean you have to file a lawsuit attacking the monument. Monument protection and congressional action often go hand in hand. Let’s get something done, and let’s support the leadership of the tribes, and let’s go to Congress and ask that this be enacted into law.

Climbing: One of the things that Utah has said is that the monument designation is bringing “unmanageable visitation levels to these lands without providing any of the tools necessary to adequately conserve and protect these resources”? Is there truth to that?

Winter: I guess I would go back to my original point, which is that the tribes have called for the restoration of the monument for the purposes of protecting the cultural resources and objects of importance. So the tribes believe that this designation is the best way to protect those resources. I think we all have a responsibility to support that work through education and stewardship and by promoting low-impact visitor use. And I also think there is a funding component here; we absolutely need to do what we can to advocate for more funding for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase. But the idea that a lawsuit attacking the monument is going to do a better job protecting cultural resources is just absurd. It’s not a credible position to take. 

Climbing: A recent survey by Colorado College said that 60 percent of Utahns support Bears Ears while just 30 percent oppose it. Yet the state is going ahead with this anyway. What are the politics here? What are Utah’s political goals?

Winter: You know, it’s hard for us to speculate on what their intention is. But what we know is that the outdoor and climbing communities overwhelmingly support the vision of a national monument. We went out and surveyed our community, and 95 percent of climbers support restoration or enlargement of the national monument at Bears Ears. So that’s just overwhelming. And I also see that data for the state of Utah. But there’s been a long tension between the state of Utah and the idea of public lands, and I think that is what’s informing their strategy to this day. 

Climbing: What do you see as the potential threat for the land—for the climbers and the tribes—if monument status gets revoked?

Winter: Well, what we know is that the Trump Administration rolled back monument status because they saw the potential for the extraction of natural resources. They calculated the smaller boundaries with opening it up to oil and gas and mining extraction in mind. The big threat, then, is not only damage to natural resources but the extraction of natural resources. But we think that monument protection will enhance our commitment to climate change adaptation, natural resources stewardship, and the protection of cultural resources.

A 2017 proposal to the Trump Administration by Utah’s governor involved opening sections of Indian Creek to oil and gas extraction.

Climbing: What can climbers be doing to support the Access Fund and Bears Ears?

Winter: We need to do a lot of things. Of course, defending the monument is critical, and climbers can do that by talking to their friends and expressing support for the monument at a pretty high level. But we’ve also launched a climber steward program in Indian Creek. The intent of that program is peer-to-peer education in the field: climbers talking to climbers about how to take care of this incredible place and how to have a light touch on the land. Climbers can go out to share that messaging with their friends and colleagues, and that’s how this ethic of stewardship spreads throughout the community and becomes part of our culture. We’re also building sustainable trails in the Creek’s most visited crags. Climbers can support this by volunteering on trail days and by staying on the trails we’ve built. And lastly, you can become a member of the Access Fund. Sign up. Get the T-shirts. Get the stickers. Proudly talk about being a member and supporting the work.

Climbing: I get increasingly frustrated by the way that the language of environmentalism is being co-opted, in this case by the state of Utah.

Winter: Well, I think what that shows us is that the values we care about—protection of the land, and the ability to connect with the land as climbers—those values are so widely shared by the general public that Utah has to talk about what it’s doing in a way that they think will connect with our values. But we’re smarter than that.

Climbing: So it’s almost a symptom of a wider problem that they have; a linguistic admission that they’re fighting a losing battle here.

Winter: They’re fighting a losing battle. What they’re doing is totally out of touch with what the wider public wants to see, so they’re having to frame what they’re doing in a way that I think is disingenuous and doesn’t accurately reflect what they’re trying to get done. It’s our job, in that case, to hold the state accountable, to try to speak truthfully about their inaccurate framing. That’s our job. 

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