Welcome back to our Focus on Friends series! This time around, we’re turning the spotlight on Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP), a group that has been a partner of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). I’m excited to share this post because it provides us an opportunity to explore a little bit of interesting history too, involving both BLM and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSENM).

I had the pleasure of working on this post with Noel Poe, Emeritus Trustee of GSEP. Noel worked for the National Park Service (NPS) for nearly 38 years, retiring as Superintendent at Ozark National Scenic River. During his first Superintendency at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Noel worked with a newly established Friends Group and quickly realized the benefits these groups can bring to a park. One of the reasons he relocated to Kanab, Utah, after his retirement was the presence of a Friends Group BLM office.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument was established in 1996. It was the first national monument to be managed by the BLM. After this, local communities and individuals in other western states started applying pressure to designate their special landscapes on BLM lands as protected areas as well. So in 2009, Congress passed an Omnibus Bill that included the establishment of the National Conservation Landscape System to “conserve, protect and restore nationally significant landscapes that have outstanding cultural, ecological and scientific values for the benefit of current and future generations.

Today, these National Conservation Lands (NCL) are BLM-managed lands, designated by the President or Congress, that include 28 National Monuments, 17 National Conservation Areas, 260 Designated Wilderness Areas, 491 Wilderness Study Areas, 81 Wild & Scenic Rivers, 2 lighthouses, and nearly 6,000 miles of National Scenic & Historic Trails.

There are currently 71 Friends or Volunteer Groups that work with these NCL units, assisting the BLM with long-lasting conservation, restoration, research, education, and recreation opportunities. They are organized into the Friends Grassroots Network and assisted by the Conservation Lands Foundation, which serves as an umbrella organization to help groups with establishment, funding, direction, organization, and advocacy.

And this brings us back to our group this week, GSEP. When President Clinton used the Antiquities Act to establish Grand Staircase Escalante NM, it proved to be an unpopular course of action with many Utahans. However, a small group of supporters began to meet and brainstorm ways to support the new monument. The manager of GSENM suggested they form a Friends Group to generate support within the adjacent communities and recruit volunteers to work with his staff on projects beneficial to the Monument.

Friends of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (now GSEP) was incorporated in April 2004 and hired their first staff members only two years later. Noel believes that hiring staff was a critical step towards the group’s success.

“When the Monument’s Education Specialist transferred, the Manager asked GSEP Board if they could hire an Educational Coordinator to work with GSENM staff to provide educational and outreach services to the local schools in adjacent communities,” Noel recalls. “That position was hired in 2010 with over 50% of the funding coming from BLM money passed to GSEP through a formal Financial Assistant Agreement.”

An Archaeological Site Steward Coordinator, a Restoration Coordinator, a Paleontological Technician soon joined the team. Thanks to grants and donations, GSEP was also able to hire an Executive Director and Operations Manager to handle administrative details.

GSEP has tackled several big projects over the years. Their largest project has been the restoration of 90 miles of Escalante River that flows through federal and private lands surrounding the towns of Escalante and Boulder, Utah. What started as an informal conversation back in 2009 about the impacts of Russian-olive (RO) woody invasives on the riparian has since turned into a multimillion-dollar project.

In 2010, the Escalante River Watershed Partnership (ERWP), funded by the Walton Family Foundation, was organized with over two dozen members consisting of the three federal and five state agencies, five Conservation Corps, NGOs, businesses, and individuals. Over the next nine years the project grew into the largest riparian restoration project on BLM lands. Over $10 million dollars were spent treating 8,000 acres of land. Long term maintenance and monitoring are now in place to prevent the return of invasives.

However, GSEP has become involved in more than just resource protection in recent years. They’ve become vocal advocates for the protection of the National Monument as well. Noel says his group has held rallies defending both Grand Staircase and Bears Ears National Monuments when then- Secretary of the Interior Zinke visited their area. And when President Trump flew into Salt Lake City in December 2017 to sign the proclamations diminishing the size of Grands Staircase by 64% and Bears Ears by 85%, Noel says they met him with “one of the largest rallies Utah has seen on the steps of the State Capitol.”

GSEP and partners have filed a lawsuit in the Washington D.C. District Court against the President and Secretary of the Interior, stating that the President does not have the authority to diminish the size of a national monument or to change the management direction. Ten environmental organizations filed a similar lawsuit that same day, and scores of others have since followed.

Two years later and GSEP is still hoping to get their day in court. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed proceedings, but the group is hoping legal activities will resume in mid-summer. Since GSEP filed their lawsuit, they have lost the status of a BLM Friends Group. Once the suits are decided, they are hopeful of re-establishing their relationship with BLM. Noel knows this may take years if the District Court decision is appealed to the Appellate Court and maybe even the Supreme Court. But the group remains committed. As Noel says, “losing one monument threatens them all.”

A big thanks to Noel and GSEP for sharing their story. For more information about Grand Staircase Escalante Partners or to support their organization, visit GSENM.org.