Contributed by Will Rice
Travis Hammill is of a very specific breed of tortured Easterners. You’ve seen them toting canyoneering packs down Park Avenue or sporting bolo ties on Boston Common. They tease themselves on the boulders in West Virginia or the summits of the New Hampshire for fifty weekends a year, scouring cheap flights to Denver, Salt Lake City, and Flagstaff late at night. They are West obsessed.
For Travis, he was able to turn his obsession into a career with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area, his family visited Canyon Country every summer, forming within Travis a deep connection to the landscape. Today, he is helping SUWA in its fight to protect the national monuments of the Southwest, in the wake of President Trump’s executive order asking that Interior Secretary Zinke review the national monument designations of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations for possible amendment or even reversal.
Bears Ears National Monument was designated by President Obama using the Antiquities Act in 2016 in a proclamation that followed a proposal led by five Native American tribes—the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Ute Indian Tribes—making it the first time in American history that these tribes will have a role in the management of the monument. However, many believe Bears Ears to be the most vulnerable of those under review. Public comment on Bears Ears ends Friday, May 26th.
For the benefit of those who may live far from Southeast Utah, we asked Travis provide some much needed context to the debate over the land and its people.
Will: Could you describe your first visit to Bears Ears?
Travis: That would have been last May. It was part of an event we did with SUWA when we were knee deep in a lot of the work that we had been doing to have Bears Ears protected. We were coordinating with local groups on protecting the Bears Ears region as part of a proposal…
So we went [camping]for a few days, right at the base of the Buttes. And I live at about 100-150 feet above sea level [in Washington, D.C.], so to go to some place that was little over 8,000 feet and to see such large skies and such amazing landscapes, places that just don’t exist on the East Coast, it was almost like I was on another planet. It was completely different and completely special. You know you can look at photos, you can have people describe it to you, but until you get to go there, there’s really just no comparison.
We had a really great experience as well where a few of the medicine men from the local Navajo Chapter were able to come and visit with us and tell us about not only the significance of the place on a natural level, but as far as their cultural history and ancestry in that region and why it was important to protect not just for the sake of protecting a natural place, but protecting a place with a huge amount of human history and cultural significance to the multitude of Native American groups that live in the region and have ties to that region.
It was one the best experiences I’ve ever had.
What drew you, specifically, to protect these places in the Southwest and Southern Utah?
Prior to working with SUWA, I was working for the outdoor retailer REI, and was doing a lot of the outdoor programs and outreach coordination with the D.C. market area. I really found that connecting people—beyond just being somebody who enjoys hiking or camping—but connecting them with how to conserve the places they enjoy to go and experience is a very rewarding career. So I started looking for jobs that included a lot more of that kind of work. It just so happened that SUWA had a D.C. office and I was able to stay in the D.C. region and continue to work on protecting lands.
Utah specifically has such a large amount of wilderness areas. In fact, SUWA’s proposal for protecting wilderness in Utah is approximately 9.2 million acres in size. That’s the largest wilderness bill. And in the lower 48 states, we have the largest contiguous wilderness areas…
On top of that there are also members of the House [of Representatives] that are in leadership positions that are from Utah, such as Rep. Rob Bishop who is the House Natural Resources Committee Chairman. Because of his long term battle against protecting public lands, Utah is the proving ground for ensuring places are protecting for future generations.
What is SUWA’s role in this fight for continued protection of our national monuments?
We see that over the next two years, God-forbid— four, we could see a huge loss of our public lands, not just in the West— in our national park areas, in our forest service areas, in our U.S. Fish and Wildlife and offshore areas. We’re talking about the end of public lands as we know it and that’s really concerning.
SUWA has been at the front lines of this. Bears Ears is actually the first one on the chopping block under that executive order. Secretary Zinke was given 45 days to give a recommendation on what to do with Bears Ears. Even national organizations—the Outdoor Industry Alliance, hunter and fisher organizations—that are against this executive order, and companies like Patagonia and REI, have come out staunchly against this executive order. So we are the ones leading the charge with groups like Sierra Club, NRDC, and the Wilderness Society.
You know, we are a small organization, but we are involved in a lot of the top echelon of these types of campaigns and that’s absolutely not to diminish the fact that there are five, six, seven, or eight hundred organizations across the country that are against this executive order.
The narrative of a land grab, economic disaster, and the decline of the ranching family has been given again and again by the Monument’s opponents. Donald Trump said when signing the Executive Order, “Over the profound objection of the citizens of Utah, the Antiquities Act does not give the federal government the power to lock up millions of acres of land and water and it’s time we ended this abusive practice.” Would you care to fact check this?
Absolutely…One of the main reasons Bears Ears was protected was because of the rich cultural history of the region. There are over 100,000 archeological sites within the region…
But as far as the greater narrative of a land grab, for one thing all of these lands that our organization is pushing for and has previously been protected as national monuments are federal public lands— which means that they belong to all 330 plus million Americans. So if they really tout the land grab aspect of this, really what they want to do with this land is to open it to oil and gas drilling and offroad vehicle use, potash production, and mining, which are economic drivers, but only as long as the resources are there.
So the problem with this narrative is that there are small contingents in Utah and other states, as well as private and publicly traded companies that trying to exploit the minimal natural resources in the region. To put it in prospective, all of our 9.2 million acres of land that we have been proposing as wilderness, at last research had approximately one week’s worth of oil at current U.S. consumption rates. One week’s worth of oil! So I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound economically viable if I were a company…It’s just not worth destroying so many wonderful areas that people go to hunt, to fish, to explore on foot or on horseback that would be destroyed for very minimal economic resource.
You get this feeling, reading Rep. Rob Bishop’s rhetoric, of “Utah versus all”. Something I’ve been talking with my friends about is the fact that at the end of the day these are national monuments. So I thought an interesting question to pose to you would be: What does the word “national” in national monument mean to you?
For me, first off, a national monument can only be proclaimed on an area of public lands. So that is going back to these public lands belonging to the 330 million people who live in the U.S. They belong to us. So when we say national, that means that these are places that belong to all of us. The federal government doesn’t own these lands. The American people do. They are held in trust by the federal government and they are managed for us, so that we can explore them and we can hunt on them and we can fish in them. We can go horseback riding. We can go hiking. We can go climbing. All of these great ways to experience places…
We need these so we have places to escape from the hubbub of the daily grind in the cities or we need them as places where we can learn about our natural environment. And I think Utah is really special because the Canyon Country is so specific to Utah and Northern Arizona and Northern New Mexico. I mean you don’t get places like this—not just anywhere else in the U.S.—but you don’t get places like this anywhere else in the world! You know!
To have these places protected means that not only are these places that Americans can visit, but people from all over the world come to Utah every year.
I come from a conservative family, and I talk to my father quite a bit about Bears Ears, trying to explain why it is important to him and why he should care. So maybe you could take a crack at it! Why should my conservative, sportsmen, beef-loving father in Pennsylvania defend Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase?
Yeah, absolutely! I think that’s a great question.
It’s important because—our organization— we’re not a partisan organization. We are working to protect these lands for every American regardless of their political structure.
You know, it’s crazy you asked me that because I also come from a conservative family. I myself am not very conservative at all, but I actually just had this conservation with my dad not two months ago…And this is my personal belief, not SUWA talking. I come from a Christian family, I myself practice Christianity, and one of the things that was passed to me through my faith was that I am to care for creation. Adam and Eve were given dominion over the Garden of Eden and they were to tend and to care for it. And so if I am not doing so, if I am not tending and caring for all of creation that was gifted to us humans, then I am not adequately following my faith. And that’s one thing that’s very important to me.
As far as—if you’re going at this from a purely politically side of things—these public lands, what I love about the wilderness areas that we are working to protect and national monuments is that you are allowed to experience them not just through hiking or horseback riding, but you can go hunting in these wilderness areas…
On top of that too, if you want to go to a purely economic standpoint, national monuments are an economic driver in the region. Oil and gas is an economic driver in a region for a very short time. There were polls that came out last summer showing 70% of the state of Utah supported protecting Bears Ears as a national monument. So this is not something like federal overreach. This is people in Utah, people who live in this area, also wanting to have this public land protected.
What is the most productive thing people can do to help this cause?
Get your butt out to some public lands! That would be my biggest one…Until you get out and experience these lands, there is no way to understand the true importance of them.
So you spend a fair bit of time in the Southwest. In our last interview, I asked Maria Lee from the Great Lakes region, “Gloves or Mittens?” I feel it’s only appropriate to ask you, Chacos or Tevas?
Well, you know it’s funny you ask that because I prefer Chacos, but I currently have a pair of Tevas because they were on sale. Haha!
I like it!
You can find out more about how to protect Bears Ears and our other national monuments at SUWA’s website. The public comment period for Bears Ears ends Friday, May 26th. The comment period for the other national monuments under review ends July 10th. You can submit comments either through SUWA or Regulations.gov.
Travis Hammill is the Eastern Grassroots Organizer for SUWA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cover photo courtesy of Travis Hammill and Bob Wick/BLM.