By Clif Koontz
Last week, along with many other recreation-oriented organizations, the American Motorcyclist Association endorsed an administrative review of large national monuments that have been proclaimed within the last couple decades. Some AMA members criticized this position as if the AMA endorses the elimination of national parks, the privatization of public lands or the conversion of pristine places into strip mines and strip malls.
As someone who loves and works in some of these affected areas, let me assure you that I share your concerns, in general, but that they simply do not apply to this national-monument review process. Before explaining why, let me provide some personal background.
Though I'm not quite 40 years of age, I've voted for many Democrats, I recycle religiously, and I just spent a third of my annual income on solar panels. I've even resisted the temptation to buy a two-stroke motorcycle until manufacturers offer one that's fuel injected, just to avoid emitting more than my fair share of harmful exhaust emissions.
My passion for motorcycling is eclipsed only by my passion for natural places. After college, I worked as an interpretive ranger for the National Park Service. It was an important and gratifying job, but I've since accomplished far more for conservation through the nonprofit organization, Ride with Respect. As its executive director, I educate off-highway-vehicle riders to practice responsible land-use ethics, and I've overseen 15,000 hours of service projects on public lands to benefit trail users and the surroundings.
Projects like rerouting trails away from sensitive resources are usually demanding on the mind and body, but they're almost always a win-win for people and nature. To get a taste of my experience with monuments, please check out the most recent Ride with Respect year in review.
Since I’m writing this as an individual, let me be frank in saying personally that I strongly disagree with some of President Donald Trump’s executive orders and would probably object to even more of them after sufficiently researching each issue.
However, professionally it’s my duty to call it like I see it, and I expect no less from the AMA.
After years of firsthand experience, it’s become obvious that recent mega-monuments should be reviewed, along with reforming the American Antiquities Act of 1906, itself. These initiatives should be supported by any group that advocates responsible recreation on shared-use trails, whether the initiatives are signed by Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton or Howdy Doody.
Imagine if there were a century-old Intersections Act that authorized presidents to proclaim street corners possessing outstanding history as National Street Corners, which would block vehicles from driving by. You might go along with the first few road closures. However, over a century later, what if presidents began proclaiming National Street Corners that each closed a hundred streets in one fell swoop? Would you simply keep your fingers crossed in hopes that your town is spared from becoming the latest National Street Corner, or would you speak up against an extremely well-funded preservation lobby that’s gone off the rails?
I take no pleasure in saying that this street analogy isn’t much of an exaggeration of how recreational trails are being wiped off the map by abuse of the Antiquities Act.
Let’s clear up three pervasive misunderstandings.
First, the Antiquities Act most certainly affects motorcycling quite directly. Many trails–and even roads–have been closed to motorcycling due to the presidential proclamation of a national monument.
For example, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument closed half of the existing routes open to motorized recreation. The federal land managers even prohibited off-highway motorcyclists from riding the graded, gravel roads. Fortunately, the affected county asserted its jurisdiction over those roads, but not before having to fight the federal land managers in court.
Monument advocates point to Canyon of the Ancients National Monument as an example of one that has motorcycle trails. Actually, the “motorcycle trails” are roads where the federal land managers decided to prohibit four-wheeled vehicles. Those roads are a far cry from the actual single-track trails they had closed to responsible recreation.
After Ride with Respect maintained trails in the Abajo Mountains for many years, supporters of a new mega-monument urged President Obama to "protect Bears Ears," so this message illustrates how RwR has been "protecting Bears Ears" all along. Unfortunately, the new Bears Ears National Monument encircles most of the trails shown in the message, which are likely to be closed unless the monument is revised.
The new Bears Ears National Monument encircles many 4WD roads, ATV trails and motorcycle trails where Ride with Respect has worked. To demonstrate this work, I hand-delivered photos to officials of the Obama Administration in Washington, D.C. (see image). If history is any guide, these routes will eventually be closed due to the national monument status, despite the fact that we’ve made them sustainable, not to mention that they avoid archaeological sites.
Second, the new review only looks at monuments of more than 100,000 acres that were proclaimed within the past three presidential administrations. It has absolutely nothing to do with existing national parks, or monuments designated before 1996, or new monuments that were sized as the Antiquities Act intended (i.e., “the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected”).
Despite the fact that national monuments are supposed to protect “objects,” they’ve increasingly become tools to lock up landscapes larger than entire states. Recent monuments have encompassed hundreds of thousands–even millions–of acres. Also there’s increasingly less land to proclaim because so much has already been preserved as a national monument or through another federally protected designation.
Third, although it’s likely that a portion of the recent mega-monuments would be scaled back in size or restrictions, the land would remain under federal ownership. That’s important to know, because those lands are still subject to many layers of protection designed to prevent indiscriminate development.
Scaling back some of the mega-monuments probably would not result in brand-new motorcycle access, but it certainly could allow motorcycling to return on some old routes. In fact, off-highway motorcycling advocacy is generally limited to conserving a small portion of our historical access, and additional mileage is typically offset by a loss of access elsewhere.
Why does my writing contradict what you may have read on billboards, news features and sponsored Facebook posts? Because the preservation movement on public lands has grown into a billion-dollar industry that largely focuses on creating de facto wilderness designations (i.e., no motorcycles, nor bicycles for that matter) under the cloak of conservation.
Since few of us pay for news or social media like Facebook, these media entities are happy to take whatever polished content they can get from the wilderness-expansion groups. The resulting messages greatly exaggerate or even falsify what will happen if vast areas are not given national monument status.
To persuade former President Obama to proclaim Bears Ears National Monument, not to mention affording him political cover, these wilderness-expansion groups spent in excess of $20 million on the Bears Ears campaign alone. Imagine how productive that $20 million would have been if they had endowed it toward actually helping to manage the area.
Refining the Bears Ears boundaries down to the actual antiquities surrounding Cedar Mesa would be a great start. There are other parts of Bears Ears, like Indian Creek, that are worthy of additional protection, but not as a monument unilaterally proclaimed by a president.
Unfortunately, it will be messy to reform the Bears Ears National Monument and better conserve the area, which is why I wish that the wilderness-expansion groups would have recognized opportunity in last year’s legislative alternative, the Utah Public Lands Initiative. It was close to being crafted into the best conservation bill in the history of Utah, by far.
Rather than giving an inch, the wilderness-expansion groups actually doubled their demands in order to kill the bill and get their monument. Sure, the monument only covers one county in Utah. Nevertheless, every eight years or so, they expect to get another million-acre national monument without the support of a single county commissioner, state legislator or federal legislator elected to represent the given area.
As one wilderness-expansion group explicitly stated, they’ll take Bears Ears this year, then three other mega-monuments in subsequent years to connect with Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which would complete the stepping stone to their goal of prohibiting motorized and even mechanized– such as bicycle–use of most places in southern Utah.
To foster more comprehensive land-use bills in Congress, and to prevent the wilderness-expansion groups’ monumental wish list from being fully realized, the Antiquities Act needs to be brought back to its original intent.
Many argue that the presidential power to proclaim monuments is outdated, since so many subsequent laws now protect archaeological sites. However, if the Antiquities Act held presidents to its original intent, additional monuments would be determined more effectively at all levels of government. Otherwise, wilderness expansion under the guise of antiquity protection will further alienate the people who live closest to the land, ultimately threatening the fabric of our society and our representative form of democracy.
More than anything, I wish conservation to be inclusive, effective and enduring. Alas, politics seems dirtier than ever, but I’m grounded by the dirt from my trail work. Reviewing recent mega-monuments is the right thing to do.
I hope motorcyclists of all backgrounds will join me in applauding the AMA for carefully navigating murky political waters to promote all forms of motorcycling and the public interest. When you belong to an establishment like the AMA that defends responsible recreation on shared-use trails, you are defending balance and common-sense conservation.
Clif Koontz is the executive director of Ride with Respect, a nonprofit organization based in Moab, Utah, that conserves shared-use recreation through trail work and education.