Pinnacles National Park: Story by Char Miller

Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET
Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

This is an article by Char Miller on the history of this once-national forest, then monument, now park.

I hate to excerpt from Char’s writing because it’s all interesting, but I chose the part that is perhaps more broadly applicable about the dangers of overreaching in pursuing what you believe to be good..and the longer view.

The political process that brought about the name change would also dovetail with his experience a century ago. As Hain rallied his friends and neighbors, he also had to reach out across the region to secure media attention, congressional interest, and executive branch action. Tapping into local, regional, and federal networks was essential to the success of his project.

It remains just as critical. Representative Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who has been pushing for this legislative change since the early 2000s, and has had the support of such powerful Democrats as Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, did not gain serious traction until he built up a bipartisan coalition that included chambers of commerce and environmental organizations, secured a Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Atwater), and agreed to drop plans to expand the monument’s wilderness area by 3000 acres. In a polarized Washington, the only way to secure even such a simple name change is to reach across the aisle.

This fraught context is why similarly worthy initiatives elsewhere have not yet succeeded. One of these is the Red Rock region of the Greater Canyonlands in southern Utah, which writer Stephen Trimble describes as a “magical rejuvenating” environment. Site of the some of the richest archaeological records of native peoples anywhere, replete with ancient granaries, cliff dwellings, and rock art, its forests, grasslands, rivers, and rock formations, according to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance it “shelters at least two dozen endangered or sensitive species as well as an unusually large number of species found nowhere else in the world.”

Little wonder that in the mid-1990s, after an extensive tour of the Red Rock region, a fact-finding group of prominent biologists, ecologists, and zoologists strongly urged the Bureau of Land Management to designate the site as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System to safeguard and preserve “Utah’s unique biological heritage.”

It still awaits that level of extra protection, and does so because of deeply divisive political context. Utah, after all, is a blood-red state, with an aggressive anti-federal politics that plays well among county commissioners, state legislators, and the governor, as well as the congressional delegation.

Among those ever ready to quash efforts to expand wilderness protections to places like Red Rock is Representative Rob Bishop (R-Brigham City), currently chair of the public-lands subcommittee of the Natural Resources Committee. He and his likeminded legislative peers are on record as wanting to strip these wild and scenic places out of federal hands and place them under state control so as to accelerate their economic development. In this hostile climate, calls for additional regulatory control over Red Rock and its unique archeological, biological, and geological features, have been dismissed out of hand.

In 1989, Rep. Wayne Owens filed the first of a long line of bills seeking wilderness protection for the area; he was a rare breed, a liberal Democrat in a thoroughly GOP-dominated state, and that surely accounts for why he found little support among his colleagues. When in 1992 he gave up his seat to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, his friend Rep. Maurice Hinchey of New York carried on, filing one bill after another in coordination with Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). Note that none of these later initiatives has originated within the Utah delegation, and none will get to a vote until that collection of congressionals decides to support such legislation. As the Pinnacles example demonstrates, public-land legislation must have bipartisan (and home-based) support before it can get to the floor.

This roadblock is why the indefatigable Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) has pushed for President Obama to play Theodore Roosevelt, using the authority invested in the Oval Office through the Antiquities Act to declare a Greater Canyonlands National Monument. But it was another president’s use of this executive power finesse that partly accounts for Utah Republicans’ unwavering resistance to the establishment of another wilderness area in the Beehive State.

In September 1996, in the final weeks of a tense presidential campaign, incumbent Bill Clinton went to the Grand Canyon in Arizona — and on its south rim, signed into law the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a vast tract of nearly 1.9 million acres in southern Utah. Across the border, a political furor erupted that has never really died down. Clinton’s dramatic gesture, for all the environmental benefits it produced, made it exceedingly difficult for a subsequent Chief Executive to act as unilaterally. Red Rock will have to wait for a new, more accommodating political climate.

Yet as SUWA continues to fight for that better day, its activists might need to take the long view. After all, Schuyler Hain and other early promoters of Pinnacles had hoped to secure national park status for that iconic Central California landscape; they and their successors have had to plug away for more than a century before they achieved their original goal. Let’s hope Red Rock and the Greater Canyonlands get there sooner.

1 thought on “Pinnacles National Park: Story by Char Miller”

  1. Arches National Park alone draws more than 1-million tourists a year on average to Moab and Utah. Last year those tourists spent 108 MILLION dollars just in that one region. If they want what’s best for their communities and their state’s economy Utah and it’s state representatives should be begging for more national parks and protected areas.


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