Caught in an Eddy: Zinke and the Future of Our Public Lands

By Randy Bishop

 In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.

These are the words President Theodore Roosevelt used on January 11, 1908, as he exercised his executive power to protect 800,000 acres of Grand Canyon as a national monument.  Now a national park, Grand Canyon remains essentially the same great wonder of nature that it was in 1908, without “a building of any kind .  .  . to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon.”

I first laid eyes on Grand Canyon and the Colorado River thirty-seven years ago. Inexperienced and mostly terrified, we ran the rapids, floated the slow pools, camped on beaches nestled in the canyon walls, and hiked the trails to waterfalls, emerald green pools, and thousand year old Anasazi ruins.

By Colorado River-running standards, our private trip was a quick one—twelve days, 227 miles, an average of roughly twenty river miles per day.  It was July and the days were hot.  We slept on the sandy beaches using only a bed sheet for cover and our life jackets as our pillow.  It was the adventure of a lifetime and it changed me in ways I am still striving to understand.

The lure of the Canyon proved irresistible and I returned on private trips in 1986, 1997, and 1999, each time using the maximum allowable time under a private permit, eighteen days.  The river and the Canyon were both familiar, and different, but the changes were brought about by nature, not because it was marred by humankind.

During this time-frame, similar wilderness/river-running opportunities took me to the Main Salmon River in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, the Selway River in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and the Bitterroot National Forest, Hells Canyon of the Snake River in the Payette and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests in Idaho and Oregon, the Yampa and Green Rivers in Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, and the Umpqua River in the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon.  My appreciation of wilderness, solitude, friendship, laughter, and of life itself deepened with every adventure.

Each of these experiences was possible only because of the wisdom and courage of those who, acting in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, created and then preserved our national monuments, national forests, and national parks—our public lands.

At this time, the Department of Interior manages 400 national parks, 154 national forests, 560 national wildlife refuges, and nearly 250 million acres of other public lands.  Each year more than 47 million people enrich their lives in the same manner as I have, by visiting our public lands.

This month, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke commences a review of more than two dozen national monuments to determine whether they should be removed from the map of our public lands.  During the confirmation process, Secretary Zinke made clear his desire to emulate President Theodore Roosevelt.  I am doubtful that Secretary Zinke is genuinely possessed of either President Roosevelt’s commitment to the creation and preservation of public lands or any similar readiness to vigorously fight against the corporate interests bent upon exploiting public lands for commercial gain.  I hope I am wrong about this.

Time will tell.


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