Rock Star

On the road with BLM paleontologist Alan Titus

By Anna Zumwalt


An open letter to Secretary Zinke

For five hours I drove from Capitol Hill, in Salt Lake City, through the same famous redrock landscapes you flew over—Bryce Canyon, Kodachrome Basin…. At Grovsenor Arch I met up with monument paleontologist Dr Alan Titus.

Picture a young Sean Connery, in Raiders of the Lost Ark dust and three-day beard, using some weird sixth-sense ability to find dinosaur bones. Now give him a guitar and Indy’s passion for saving relics, and you have Dr. Alan Titus—a paleontologist at Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument since 2000.


Photos by Anna Zumwalt and courtesy of My Public Lands, Bureau of Land Management.

In Titus’ BLM truck, we drove up and up and over the Cockscomb Ridge. Steep and rocky, high and narrow. On the other side, we emerged in a broad blue skyscape over rock outcroppings and budding shrubs. Even the main attraction for this stop was breathtaking—a coal seam.
President Clinton’s 1996 Presidential Proclamation designating Grand Staircase Escalante as a national monument came as a complete shock to everyone, including Titus, who was then teaching geology at Snow College. “I was just as upset and shocked as any body that this had happened because I had liked to take my students down here on field trips to collect fossils and stuff—so I thought ’Oh, there goes that.’”

I’m sure he told you, too. The rocks. How coal is formed. Who has tried to mine it. Of course, then, the mining talk begs the question, what does national monument designation actually mean? All previous monuments, all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt, had been given to the Park Service. Why did Babbitt and Clinton decide to give this one, the Grand Staircase-Escalante, to the BLM?
You know the answer: Because of the BLM’s mandate of multiple uses.

“You can still target shoot over 98% of here. You can hunt. You can ride your ATV. You can go horseback riding… You can do whatever you want, within reason, within the regular BLM rules and within our management framework,” Titus explained. “We still have thousands, about 10,000, cows grazing out there. We still have a producing oil field in upper valley. We had, until recently, producing alabaster mines and gravel quarries. They are all still out here.”
So what did the National Monument designation change?

“Well, we have supplemental rules now that closed a lot of areas to collectors. On normal BLM land you can pick up rocks, collect fossils, you can do all sorts of things. You can harvest vegetation. You can do …whatever. You can’t do that in a monument. It’s closed to collecting. And the monument also brought together a framework of more intensive management …and funding to support more intensive research and things like that, that you would never see in a normal BLM field office. Like, for instance, the paleontology. This sort of research that we do here wouldn’t normally be supported by a normal field office.”

“So we can’t collect coal for our camp fire?” I asked.
“There are certain exceptions. You can harvest edibles for personal use. You can harvest firewood, as long as it’s dead and down.”
So, we can’t collect it, but companies can still mine?

“Hypothetically, yes. And hypothetically you don’t need to do away with the monument to have a coal mine, you just need to have Congress reopen it to leasing. Existing leases, grandfathered leases, are honored in perpetuity, as long as the leaseholder desired to do whatever it was they were doing, as long as they continued to do it. But as soon as they retire it then it would go away, if there was no new leasing.”

What would happen if this area became a mining site is hard to say. Big roads, big trucks…. And a lot of traffic.
The BLM was also tasked to maintain the undeveloped character of the land as well as the historic legacy and traditional uses, But, since coal and fossil areas aren’t always on top of each other, paleontology and mining can co-exist without severely impacting each other, Titus believes, though they are occasionally found together.

Secretary Zinke, I heard you were surprised to learn that, when that happens, the coal always wins. The operations are so massive that finding a bone means nothing. Nothing gets in the way of mining. Nothing slows it down. The bones get pulverized. That’s just the way it is.

So, what’s so important about dinosaur bones? What’s so important about the fossiliferous regions of the Kaiparowits plateau, the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears areas?

This staircase, these rocks of the Kaiparowits Plateau, are the texts of the story of survival. They contain, in about 7,500 vertical feet, one of the most complete records of late Cretaceous terrestrial organisms and ecosystems on the planet. This is a snapshot of what Earth was like up to the big impact of the meteor, the extinction, and the chaos—and how life adapted. It’s A Guide to Life After Catastrophe etched in the National Monuments.

Back in Titus’ truck, I got to ask my burning questions, as you did, too. Mine were, “Are we going to annihilate the world? Is there hope for us? …And how do you learn that from dinosaurs?”

Not that he isn’t worried about the future, but Titus’ answer about what the bones have taught us was oddly comforting. “There have been lots of extinctions. The dinosaur extinction wasn’t actually the worst that the planet has experienced. And life always finds a way. But it might be without us. There are always winners and losers in every extinction. Ravens and cockroaches always win. And then, from those, when you clear out an eco-space of all the inhabitants, of all the things that are niche specialized, then those generalists re-radiate and fill up those niches again with specialists. It’s beautiful, actually.”

As you know, Mr. Zinke, Titus has discovered amazing things. The big-nosed horned dinosaur is even named after him. And thanks to the monument designation, and funding, what he has learned is available for all to learn.
Even without the dino-discoveries, this whole area is rainbows and unicorns. It looks as if someone had come out and paved the narrow stretch of the top of a long, high, steep hill with round, smooth jewels. Bright red. Orange. Purple. Black. Why was the top of a ridge covered with river stone? Titus said the stones had once been in a riverbed; later, those same stones protected the area from erosion as the land around washed away. They glitter around every pinion and juniper, the sagebrush, the budding cacti and flowering yucca, the cliff roses perfuming the air filled with bird-song serenade. It really is Heaven.

But it’s also a crime scene and if you disturb the evidence, then you don’t have any evidence; you can’t get the data. For the first time in the long life of my inner fourth-grader, I was happy not to take anything home.

Like you, I left the monument with no bones, no gem-like stones, no flowers. Just memories. I licked a lot of stones, to see if they were dinosaur bones, and I left them for you. I have nothing to show for the trip except the dozen or two no-see-um bites on my face and hands, allergy-traumatized eyes and a sweet memory. I left everything of beauty for the next tourist, you.

There is a Navajo tradition called Beauty Way. I don’t know much about Navajo religion or tradition but, to me, beauty connotes intrinsic respect.
Respect and beauty may not be the voices, the votes, our leaders always listen to—as evidenced by what was in the news last month around your visit: You and others said you’re afraid of the monument’s restrictions. Hatch said they are too many to list, and that we should “take my word for it.” But while he has recently denied a man a lung transplant for smoking marijuana and is gunning for a lower legal alcohol limit, I cannot say I trust him and his fear of restrictions at all. You, Secretary Zinke, said having ’access limited’ is a problem. But during your visit, it was you who who denied access to an important resource—your ears—in choosing not to meet with many key monument supporters.

What do those feeling threatened by the monument status really want?
Imagine our future, realizing that, like a bone not attached to a skeleton, we have not attached ourselves to a whole, to this planet and to each other. Fragmented and separated, we are no longer significant. I learned that from my dino-digging tour. Did you?

Dear Secretary Zinke, I hope you got to ask the same questions as you spent your day with Dr. Titus. I hope you were able to discover the same raptor knucklebone I found on Saturday. I hope you listened to the 75-million-year-old voices that might give us a clue as to how to survive manmade and natural catastrophes and keep an open mind, curious to learn and enjoy the Monuments as they are.

Anna Zumwalt, is a Zen Buddhist monk, certified hypnotherapist and meditation teacher and she is CATALYST’s Director of Attention.

This article was originally published on July 1, 2017.