A View From Three (Federal) Lands

Photo by Leslie Baehr

Twas but a lone cow that stood between my tent and I.  He froze mid-road glowering at myself (or perhaps at my car) with the slow mean look of an 1800’s Utah outlaw.  Not wanting to honk—for fear of frightening his hundred grazing brethren or interrupting the quietude of the National Forest—I reminded myself that I too was animal and had a similar stubborn stare at my disposal.  I summoned my best dominant gaze for his consideration.  We sat like that, staring at each other for a lackadaisical and luxurious amount of time that only a grazing Utah cow and a person on a camping road trip can afford.

Excuse me cow, would you mind telling me what business you have in a National Forest bordering Bryce Canyon National Park? He of course said nothing, but eventually moved out of the way, likely due to boredom, and I pressed on to our primitive campsite—a pleasant patch of dirt bounded by trees and fields.  All the while thinking that, surely, a pristine National Forest should not contain the likes of these bovine.

But pristine, it turns out, is not the business of the National Forest Service.  It was in the early 1900’s when the Forest Service was establish and when Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief, declared the aim of the organization–“to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”  In addition to providing grazing fields for our livestock, Forest Service land supplies us with water and timber.  As part of the Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service’s goal for it’s 193 million acres is multiple use—“ managing resources under the best combination of uses to benefit the American people while ensuring the productivity of the land and protecting the quality of the environment.”

The handful of people populating our half mile radius consisted of a cowboy herding his livestock, several ATVers, and some fishermen floating in one-man rafts waiting for the dance of their pole strings; mostly locals I guessed.  It was a stark contrast to the scene in which we had found ourselves several days prior and eighty-something miles back westward.

stamp filter cow brush

A clamor of languages, from Czech to Japanese, bounced off the shuttle-bus walls as the vehicle crawled its way up the canyon of Zion National Park.  The National Park may be more akin to amusement park with a nature theme.  A shuttle bus replaces cars on the main road in the busy season, and plays a recording explaining the history of the park and the sites—famous rock formations with regal names like The Three Patriarchs and The Sentinel—as they glide by.  Riders can get on and off as they please—to see a short film in the museum, to hike through a river in the famous Narrows (rentals for canyoneering shoes and walking sticks available out the entrance and to your right) or to climb to the top of Angels Landing, the last .5 miles of which is a scramble along a narrow ridge where the Park has provided a chain to grasp onto.

There are also restaurants, a path for those with pets, water filling stations, proper restrooms, a lodge, and two campgrounds crowded full of road trippers and amenities.   It is difficult to believe that all this infrastructure is meant to accomplish National Park aims—“to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” With 401 National Parks made up of 84,000,000 acres of land and 4,502,644 water, you’d think there would be enough to go around without cramming us all into a small area, but with 282 million recreational visits a year (up from 1 million in 1920, just four years after president Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act creating the parks) perhaps the approximately 600 country wide National Park “concessions” (food, transport, lodging, shops, etc.) don’t seem like such a big deal after all.

stamp filter cow brush

Our road trip concluded with a short stop in Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument.  If Zion is Disney Land, Escalante is more of your uncle’s backyard BBQ.  It is a relatively quiet and un-centralized place with multiple un-guarded entrances (no fee required), few paved roads, and few signs to signal your entrance into the area. An “interagency visitor center” sits in the local town of Escalante, where we were required to pick up a free backcountry permit to stay the night even though we were camping no more than a few miles from the main highway.  But once we headed to our site, it was obvious why.  The small town of Escalante quickly gives way to a vast and still desert.  Our camp site was located down a seemingly endless rain damaged dirt road which we explored for several hours until it dropped into the flat of a canyon and appeared to stretch into the sky.  We u-turned, headed back toward our camp site (which required maneuvering my Subaru over a series of rocks and potholes it was probably never meant to handle out of the context of commercials) and set up our tent on the precipice of a cliff overlooking the canyon that held the never ending road.

What was it that had caused the US government to polish Zion to a diamonds shimmer, but had left Escalante a dull rock?*

Perhaps it is all in the name.  Zion is a National Park. Escalante is a National Monument.  While some National Monuments are more developed (think Washington Monument), this federal designation may be the trickiest of the federal lands owing to its origin.

In 1906 the Antiquities Act was born giving the president the power to make National Monuments out of ‘historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest,’ without congressional approval.  While the act was apparently inspired by the desire to protect prehistoric Native American ruins, the ‘scientific interest’ portion of the act allowed Theodore Roosevelt to declare the geological marvel of Devils Tower, Wyoming a National Monument.  Two years later, he did the same thing for the Grand Canyon (which later became a National Park). Arizona made no congressional protest over what some may have thought was a misuse of the act, perhaps because Arizona was only a territory with no representation in congress at the time.

There are only a handful of times that Presidents have invoked the power of this act to designate monuments without congressional and local approval.  1996 was one of those, when Bill Clinton declared Escalante a National Monument, much to the lament of the folks of Utah.

National Monuments can be managed by a variety of federal agencies, and in Escalante’s case, the  job fell upon the shoulders of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—a self-proclaimed “small agency with a big mission”.  Though the BLM is fairly new (circa 1940’s), the predecessors from which it evolved, the General Land Office (GLO) and the Grazing Service, go way back.

It was 1812 and America needed to turn it’s wilderness into agricultural land, partly to sell for federal government pocket money. Thus was born the GLO, what some have called “ the ‘Gateway to Land Ownership’ for millions of Americans”.  Now BLM, the agency has 245+ million acres of surface land (“It administers more public land…than any other Federal agency in the United States”…mostly in the West), and 700 million acres of “sub-surface mineral estate.”

  stamp filter cow brush

Some have said that it is our natural lands that have made our nation what it is today.  Special thanks to all those working to keep it that way. Even the cows.

Photo by Leslie Baehr

Photo by Leslie Baehr

(Note: This is by no means a comprehensive list of federal land owners and managers (which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, The Department of Defense, The Fish and Wildlife Services, and many more) or of the lands themselves (wilderness areas, reservations, state lands, etc.).  It is meant only to be an anecdotal introduction.)

*some would have Escalante no other way


Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/

National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov/

National Monument Info: http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/hisnps/NPSHistory/monuments.htm

Bureau of Land Management: http://www.blm.gov/

Explore Public Lands Geography:



For more by LESLIE BAEHR see here.

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