BLM has a plan to tackle booming recreation — at least in theory
People visited Bureau of Land Management land more than 80 million times in 2022, hiking, biking, driving, exploring, hunting, fishing, climbing, camping and otherwise recreating. That’s a 40% increase over the past decade. In the same time period, the BLM’s recreation budget rose by only 22%.
The combination translates into a vexing problem for public-land managers in the West: Popular areas risk being loved to death. On the ground, this means more cars, trucks and ATVs barreling over sensitive species, and more garbage littering more trails through winter wildlife range and campsites. Meanwhile, the agency lacks the resources to keep up.
“In the past, we’ve had the luxury of being passive, because our lands haven’t faced that much pressure,” says Joel Webster, vice president of Western conservation for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But now, if we’re not proactive, it’s going to have some serious consequences.”
In an attempt to head off those consequences, the BLM recently released a 28-page document called the “Blueprint for 21st Century Outdoor Recreation.” In it, the agency takes on persistent issues linked to recreation’s increasing popularity, including harm to sacred tribal sites, chronic funding shortfalls and barriers to equal use, such as limited outreach and lack of diverse staffing.
The plan itself reads at a high level, addressing four broad goals: bringing in more money, building partnerships across public and private sectors, improving outreach and inclusion, and protecting the land while meeting the demands of increased recreation. The public has until Sept. 30 to give feedback to the agency.
The document is not a formal plan, but Webster said its recommendations could help relieve some concrete recreational pressures, beginning with the fact that only about 30% of BLM lands have a basic travel management plan. That means new roads and trails pop up across landscapes from sagebrush to slickrock, with little regard for an area’s wildlife and cultural sites.
As a first step, the agency should account for existing trails and roads, said Megan Lawson, an economist for Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research firm based in Montana. The BLM has successfully identified most of its natural resource development opportunities. Doing the same for its trails would not only help protect important sites, but also help local communities manage and benefit from recreation.
The agency also needs to figure out just how many people are using various sites and find ways to prevent crowding and overuse at the most popular areas.
Take Moab, Utah. Visitation exploded there with hikers, bikers, climbers and campers drawn by its famous swooping sandstone, wavy dunes and towering crags. But Moab is also heralded as an example of how to respond, with hikers, bikers — both motorized and non — and other community members working with the BLM diligently, year after year, to build and maintain trails able to handle the ever-increasing crush of visitors. The coalition has also helped ease the burden on nearby national parks by redirecting thrill-seekers to other vast tracts of public land.
But it takes money, Lawson said, to track trail-users and post signs, build outhouses and educate visitors in multiple languages, and not all communities have the financial resources of an outdoor mecca like Moab.
And the BLM’s recreation budget is “trending in the wrong direction,” said Kevin Oliver, BLM’s division chief for recreation and visitor services. Ten years ago, the BLM spent about 84 cents on each visit. Today that number has fallen to 74 cents.
BLM officials aren’t complaining about having more visitors; Oliver called the recreation spike “fantastic.” But they acknowledge that, as things stand, they simply cannot cope with the increasing demands. They know that the 40% visitation bump isn’t an aberration: Americans want to get outside.
The new document stresses the importance of states, tribes and local communities working with the BLM to come up with solutions. But the coalitions they create need to be durable, Oliver said, given inevitable changes in administrations and political priorities.
Webster agrees. While the growing numbers of visitors have already damaged some popular areas and put pressure on wildlife from elk to sage grouse, especially in states like Colorado, the bulk of BLM lands are not yet recreation destinations. But that can change quickly, and Webster wants the agency to plan ahead.
“It’s a lot harder to pull things back in if you’ve made a mistake than it is to do it right from the beginning,” Webster said. “And there’s just more people in the West, and more people recreating on our public lands.”
Christine Peterson lives in Laramie, Wyoming, and has covered science, the environment and outdoor recreation in Wyoming for more than a decade. Her work has appeared inNational Geographic, Outdoor Lifeand theCasper Star-Tribune, among others. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.
What Does it Mean to be wild?
What Does it Mean to Be Wild?:
A trip to a bear den with wildlife biologists yields more questions than answers
One curious member of the public, who joined state wildlife biologists on an excursion to a bear den, poses for a photo with the tranquilized black bear. Photo credit: Emily Arntsen
by Emily Arntsen – 8.17.2023 – 20 min. read
In the doldrums of late summer, when the Book Cliffs are thirsty and barren, black bears clamber down to Green River, Utah, to feast on the town’s famous fruits. The locals call them Melon Bears.
Some say the Melon Bears are bad omens. To see one means the drought is dire, means the sheep are in danger, means fewer crops for sale.
“When we get bears down in the valley, it’s usually an old bear that’s having trouble, or a sow with cubs that can’t find food,” said Darrel Mecham, a Green River resident and lifelong bear hunter. “Means it was a dry year.”
Meat makes up less than 10 percent of a black bear’s diet, but if forage is scarce, they will eat other animals. To protect their livestock, ranchers in Green River will sometimes call the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to remove black bears from town.
Mecham, a former Grand County chief deputy sheriff, said he has helped the state’s DWR catch these bears and haul them off to more suitable habitats on multiple occasions. But they never stay away for too long, he said.
“I remember they transported one boar to Fish Lake, and he was seen about a week later on I-70 coming back to Green River,” he said. Fish Lake is over 100 miles away. “We can’t keep them out of here.”
Melon farming factors heavily in the story Green River residents tell about themselves, as demonstrated by the annual Melon Days parade and fair. And though the Melon Bears are a nuisance to some farmers, they are also celebrated for their role in the town’s mythology. The image of a black bear in a melon patch, of an apex predator that prefers soft fruits, is not only endearing and perfectly storylike, but a testament to the sweetness of Green River’s prized crops.
In the town’s John Wesley Powell River History Museum, there is one Melon Bear to commemorate all Melon Bears. He is stuffed and eternally posed with a slice of foam watermelon in his claws, an offering to his afterlife.
This Melon Bear is Mecham’s. “He wasn’t actually in a melon patch when I got him. I got him up in the [Book Cliffs] mountains,” he said. “But we put him there to tell the story of the Melon Bears.”
Lifelong bear hunter Darrel Mecham poses
with a boar he caught in the Book Cliffs mountains near Green River, Utah.
Photo credit: Emily Arntsen
Every spring, DWR biologists visit about 30 bear dens across Utah, the locations of which they find using coordinates from GPS collars worn by hibernating sows. The main objective of these visits is to tally the number of cubs born to those sows, a number biologists use to help estimate the black bear population across the state. Right now, the population is somewhere around 5,200, not counting yearlings and cubs.
The goal of Utah’s black bear program is to “manage the Utah black bear populations consistent with habitat, biological and social constraints, and to meet the needs of the resource and the resource user.”
In this context, the “resource” is black bears, and the “resource user” is the people who hunt them.
“We want to make sure the population is healthy,” said DWR wildlife biologist Brad Crompton. “We need to know how many bears we have so we can estimate the harvest objective.” The “harvest” is how many black bears are killed each season. For Utah residents, a black bear hunting permit with the intention to harvest costs $83. The same permit costs $354 for non-residents.
For months, I had been emailing DWR biologists for an invite to a bear den. It was a snowy winter, though, and I was discouraged by the offers I had received so far—a 34-mile round-trip snowmobile ride, for example, and I would need to bring my own snowmobile. Finally, Crompton and another DWR wildlife biologist, Joe Christensen, had an “easy one” for me.
I met the biologists, plus the unexpected group of curious individuals joining us, on the side of Interstate 70 at the turnoff for one of Utah’s famed ghost towns, population 4. I include this detail only to highlight the size of our group, which was more than triple the population of this town. I remember thinking that 13 seemed like excessive company for an ice climb to a bear den, but what did I know?
“People love to see the cubs,” said Crompton, who’d let his teenage daughter skip school for the occasion. “We always invite the public.”
As such, it was an eclectic group with varying motives and degrees of preparedness. Crompton brought his daughter. Christensen brought his son. There were three college boys from Price, plus a bear biologist from Salt Lake City, who endured over an hour of hiking in knee-deep snow in high-heeled ankle booties, a baffling choice given her prior experience with field research in this exact niche. She was accompanied by her husband, a rock climber, who actually turned out to be useful given the extremity of the hike. There was also a young couple from Cleveland, Utah who brought their 4-month-old son in a baby backpack. The father introduced himself as Hans, “like hands,”and then he waved at me, in case it still was unclear.
Wildlife biologists Brad Crompton and Joe Christensen (foreground) prepare the tranquilizer gun before entering a black bear den in the Book Cliffs mountains in Utah
Photo credit: Emily Arntsen
Before we embarked on the hike, we had a team meeting of sorts during which Crompton told us the history of this bear.
“She was an abandoned cub,” he explained. “Her mother ate some sheep and had to be killed by government trappers. So we took her in as a cub and eventually released her to the wild, and we’ve been tracking her ever since. That was thirteen years ago.”
I asked if tracking a bear since birth disqualified her from being “wild.” “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never thought about that.”
Before we began the hike, I took inventory of my comrades. I was bewildered by some of the fashion choices. No one looked particularly ready for an ice climb. And although I’m not sure what one would wear to prepare for a bear encounter, no one looked ready for that either.
“Like Hands” especially stood out to me. In addition to the baby strapped to his back, he wore a red-and-white gingham shirt under a canvas vest. On one hip, he had a pistol in a carved leather holster that he kept flush to his bootcut jeans with a delicate piece of cord that looped around his thigh like a garter. On the other hip, he wore his cellphone. His eyes were shielded from the sun by a straw hat and wraparound orange sunglasses.
Frankly, he looked great. Describing his outfit warrants no further explanation, in my opinion. But as it pertains to this story, I include these details mostly to highlight the absurdity of the situation. The specificity of his cowboy apparel only enhanced the uncanny feeling that we were play-acting what felt like an AI-generated thriller if the algorithm had been fed “The Revenant” and “Donner Party” and “Utah stereotypes.” In other words, I had a weird feeling about this, even before we started hiking.
We started off toward the GPS coordinates and quickly found ourselves doubling back in search of a less direct but less arduous route. “Finding her is the hardest part,” Christensen said. I found this hard to believe, since I knew he and Crompton would eventually have to crawl into a wild animal’s den.
“This is why I love bear denning. It gets you out to places you’d never go otherwise,” Crompton remarked at one point. True, I thought, as many of us slid backwards down the ravine.
Eventually, Crompton and Christensen ventured off to scout the best route. The rest of us waited on a narrow ledge. We were cold in the shade, and the baby was crying. When Crompton returned, he warned that the route would get “a little cowboy.” We kicked our toes into the hard snow for traction and pitched forward with the grade of the ravine toward another narrow ledge. “I should have brought a rope, I guess,” Crompton said.
Wildlife biologist Brad Crompton peeks into the black bear den before crawling in to tranquilize the animal.
Photo credit: Emily Arntsen
At one point, someone dislodged a rather large rock, which slid noisily down the ice. We all called out “rock!” in descending order, then looked down, helplessly.
Before arriving at the entrance of the den, Christensen asked us to be quiet so as not to wake the bear. This request went largely ignored. A college boy with a fear of heights announced that he would be turning back now, and the baby was wailing.
“Do you think she’s heard us?” I whispered to Christensen. “I hope not,” he whispered back. Then he broke a branch off a nearby juniper. “I forgot my shovel,” he said. With comic inefficiency, he dug out the entrance of the den.
At some point it occurred to me that I was directly in front of and eye-level with the opening of the den. I imagined the bear emerging angrily and roaring in my face. Though I knew this would most likely not happen, neither the journey here nor this cast of characters had inspired much confidence in what we were doing. I looked down at my boots, the exact width of the ledge, and then at the cascade of ice behind me, and decided to relocate to a rock above the den.
From this vantage point, I could see Christensen and Crompton, who had walked out of sight of the rest of the group to load the tranquilizer gun with a mixture of Ketamine and Xylazine. I suppose they thought we didn’t want to see this. We came to see cubs, not a bear in a k-hole, though that was a necessary part of this operation.
The two biologists awkwardly navigated the narrow ledge through the group toward the den as everyone closed in around them, vying for a good view. The two remaining college boys took out their phones and started recording, overshooting the action by at least 10 minutes.
Crompton paused in front of the hole, which was only a little wider than his shoulders, then adjusted his headlamp and crouched down. He climbed face-first into the den until his boots disappeared. I stuck my recorder as far into the hole as I dared and heard his one-way conversation with the bear.
“Hey bear,” he said with the kind of pleading cadence one might use with an angry dog. “Nice bear,” he cooed. Then his tone changed abruptly. “Oh, that’s your face,” he said. “Oh, you’re awake.” Then I remembered what he said earlier when I asked if the tranquilizer ever failed. “Yeah, often actually,” he had said.
Crompton said, “Gun!” and reached back to the entrance of the den, where Christensen was holding his ankles. Christensen loaded the gun into his hand. “Cocked, right?” Crompton asked. Christensen paused. “I think so,” he said.
A dull crack came from inside the den, and then Christensen pulled Crompton out of the hole by his legs. “Got her,” Crompton said, out of breath. In the movie version of this scene, there would have been music. Instead, it was unusually quiet, as it always is in real life during what you think is the climax.
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“Now we wait,” Christensen said. We all stood quietly facing the den. We had to wait about 10 minutes for the tranquilizer to kick in. I got the sense that some people were bored.
Crompton eventually crawled back into the den and asked the bear if she was “good and asleep.” No answer, and so he pulled her out by her front legs, and then by her head. “No cubs,” he confirmed.
I had never seen a black bear this close before, but even I could tell that she was unusually skinny. Her shoulder blades stood up like dorsal fins. The fur around her temples was thin, and I could see through to her pale skin. “You’re kind of scruffy, aren’t you?” Crompton said to the bear.
I don’t know why I was shocked that her eyes were open, but I found this deeply unsettling. Could she see? The more accurate term for this kind of tranquilization is “dissociation.” This means that “physically, their eyes still function, but it doesn’t register in their brain or memory,” said another DWR wildlife biologist, Vance Mumford, to me during a different interview about tranquilization of wild animals. “Of course we don’t know exactly what they can see or remember, but judging by their reactions, I think it’s very little,” he said, relating it to his own experiences of not remembering under general anesthesia.
“She won’t remember a thing,” Crompton had said to me on the way up. But as someone who used to blackout with a frequency I’m not proud of, I know that this limbo state of consciousness is not so much a matter of pausing the recorder as it is an obscuring of files. The body holds every memory. Some are just hard to find. I looked into her unfocused eyes, small and brown and almond-shaped like a human’s, and I wondered where she would store this image of my face and whether it would ever resurface in her memory.
The glory of the Melon Bear was lost on this crowd. The fancy footwear biologist honored no ceremony when she snipped and pocketed a lock of fur. “You don’t mind, do you?” she asked Crompton, as if the fur belonged to him. He shrugged.
One of the college boys pulled back the bear’s lips to examine her teeth, which were yellow and larger than I expected. He grabbed a fistful of fur from the scruff of her neck and held her head up for a photo. Her jaw was slack from the muscle relaxant, and her tongue was lolling slightly out of her mouth in a way that made me want to tell everyone to shut up and stop touching her.
I asked Crompton why he thought she didn’t have cubs. “Last summer was mighty dry,” he said. “Not a lot of forage.” In order to survive the winter with a newborn, a sow has to eat for at least two in the months leading up to hibernation. After mating, the embryo waits in the uterus for the change of seasons. By the start of fall, if the sow has stored enough fat, the embryo will take, and she’ll give birth in the den that winter. “She most likely mated this summer,” Crompton guessed, based on the every-other-year mating cycle of a sow her age.
The young couple put their baby on the bear’s back, as if to ride her. This was equal parts touching and disturbing. Mama Bears and babies go together. But this bear was too thin to be a mama this year. And this bear did not look like a teddy bear. She looked dead.
A taxidermied black bear holds a piece of foam watermelon in John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, Utah, to commemorate the Melon Bears that like to steal snacks from the town’s melon patches. Photo credit: Elayne Hinsch, collections manager at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum
The baby’s father held up the bear’s paw to me. Instinctively I raised my palm to hers and felt her calloused pads and the underside of her claws. It felt wrong to touch her. Her limb was twisted in an unnatural way to reveal her paw. I wanted him to put it down, but not as badly as I wanted to touch her claws. I was not above anyone else in this regard. I was excited by this perversion of the natural order and the chance to touch an animal I had no business touching. I posed for a photo with her, and in this photo, my smile is more like a grimace.
When we got down from the den, I felt a strange camaraderie with this group of people. Mere hours ago, we were 13 strangers, and then we all touched the same bear, and wasn’t that kind of f___ed up? Wasn’t that kind of special? Adrenaline was high. Blood sugar was low. I don’t remember anything from the drive home. That night I dreamt that I miscarried, and I woke up with a bad feeling about whatever curse I had set in motion the day before when I touched the Melon Bear.
Weeks later, I visited Darrel Mecham in Green River. He told me the story of his Melon Bear, and then the story of his other bear, his Final Bear.
Mecham, who is 61, has been hunting since he was a teenager. In all those decades, he’s killed only two black bears, but not for a lack of opportunity. “It’s not called killing,” he said. “It’s called hunting for a reason.”
For him, hunting is about the thrill of the chase and being in nature. “When you strap a pack on some pack mules and you ride alone on that old trail along the rim and you’re going up some remote canyon and all of a sudden you get a feeling and you look over and there’s a bear standing there watching you, that’s the real experience,” he said.
At some point in the conversation, I caught a glimpse of a stuffed bear in the next room.
“He’s a special bear. I’ll never take another,” Mecham said, gesturing to his Final Bear, raised up on his hind legs forever.
When Mecham was diagnosed with Ankylosing spondylitis in 2009, the doctor said he would most likely be paralyzed the rest of his life. “I met this bear right after I was told I was going to be crippled,” he said.
It was the end of what he thought might be one of his last hunts, and he was going home from the Book Cliffs empty-handed. “I hadn’t seen anything all day, but I was OK with that because at least I was able to ride out, and I wasn’t crippled,” he said. “But then we ran into each other, me and this bear. He looked at me, and I looked at him, and there was kind of a respect in that.”
Later I thought about my bear and how I had looked into her blank eyes. She had looked into mine, too, maybe. But I hadn’t rode my pack mule alone down that old trail along the rim to find her, hadn’t spent a lifetime crisscrossing the Book Cliffs where she dwelt, didn’t know the feeling of a bear watching me from afar, hadn’t earned it. And so, Melon Bear, I want to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry that this is how you greet the spring each year. I’m sorry you didn’t have any cubs. I’m sorry I came to your den and touched the underside of your limp paw, because there was no respect in that.
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Emily Arntsen moved to Moab, Utah, in 2020. She works as a reporter at Moab’s KZMU Radio and has written for other publications about the people, the history, and the ecology of the Colorado Plateau. Before moving west, Emily worked in Boston, Massachusetts, as a science writer and radio producer.
Dark Forest: A Look Inside Controversial Wilderness Therapy Camps
In the Utah desert, can golf justify itself?
As in so many cities in the desert West, golf in St. George is a thirsty business, with a powerful lobby and a relationship with water painted in green on the landscape. Among its peers, however, St. George is in a league of its own. Few cities in the Southwest use more water per person: nearly 300 gallons a day. And a hefty portion of that, over half, goes to keeping ornamental grass, lawns and golf courses lush in an arid region where water supplies are dwindling every day. Within a decade, and without immediate action to conserve, local officials predict that its water shortage will become a water crisis.
Utah is notorious for granting an unusual degree of grace to this sort of profligate water use. That may be changing, however, at least when it comes to the golf industry: In 2022, the city of Ivins, an exurb of St. George, effectively banned the construction of new golf courses, while early this year, state Rep. Douglas Welton, R, introduced House Bill 188, which could require golf courses to be more transparent about how much water they use.
In a city and at a time where something’s gotta give, will golf be the first to fall?
MINUTES DOWN THE ROAD from the Green Springs community, at the Dixie Red Hills Golf Course, I joined a group of older players staging behind the first tee. Before we settled on the griddle-hot pleather of our golf carts, Jim Peacock, 80, slapped a top-spinning rocket up and over the rough that his friend Craig Felt, two years his senior, couldn’t help but admire. “Jim’s the athlete of the group,” Felt said. Soon, the chatter moved to water. “When I was in Mexico, there was only enough water for three flushes. That could happen to us if we don’t pay attention,” Felt said. While Tom Smith, 75, indicated that he’d rather give up golf than toilet-flushing, it’s not clear that the rest of the community is so inclined. “This is a place where a lot of people do a lot of golfing,” Greg Milne said, gesturing toward the sprawl of St. George.
“That’s how it started. The course was built as a sort of vision for growth in the area.”
This area’s mingling of desert and water has long attracted people. Southern Paiute bands lived near the Virgin River for a millennium or more before Mormon colonists arrived in the late 1850s, intent on making “Utah’s Dixie” bloom with cotton. For the next century, Washington County remained “a sleepy little community off the I-15 that people would pass by on their way to California,” said Colby Cowan, director of golf operations for the city of St. George. Throughout the 1950s, nuclear blasts at Nevada’s Yucca Flats test range blew radioactive dust onto the homes of the city’s 5,000 residents — dust that stubbornly clung to the valley’s reputation.
But in 1965, St. George unveiled the nine-hole Dixie Red Hills course, rebranding the Mormon Downwinder outpost as a putter’s paradise. “That’s how it started. The course was built as a sort of vision for growth in the area,” said Cowan. Since then, golf’s role in the regional recreation economy has burgeoned. The 14 golf courses in Washington County, including four owned by the city of St. George, attract nearly 600,000 visitors a year, generating $130 million dollars annually, according to Cowan. That puts golf on par with mining, quarrying, and oil and gas industries in the area, though still below the half-billion dollars generated annually by Zion National Park.
And, like those other industries, golf has political sway. When golf’s water needs came under fire in Washington County in 2021 and again in the state Legislature this January, the industry flexed its influence. Golf Alliance Utah, the lobbying wing of the Utah Golf Association, pulled strings at the Statehouse in Salt Lake City, killing the bill even after sponsors dropped the annual reporting requirement, arguing that it unfairly targeted the sport.
Generally, the golf industry tries to burnish its image by touting its economic benefits and highlighting its efforts to decrease water use. “We’re doing our due diligence with water conservation,” Devin Dehlin, the executive director at the Utah Section Professional Golf Association, said in a call with High Country News. “What the sport brings economic-wise is the story we want to tell.” In practice, those changes have come down to encouraging course operators to replace some turf with native plants. Other technologies, like soil-moisture monitoring and artificial grass coloring, which gives turf a deep green appearance with minimal watering, are being adopted, though strictly on a voluntary basis. Dehlin said his organization does not track how widespread these changes are.
OF THE 10 THIRSTIESTgolf courses in Utah, seven are in Washington County, according to an investigation by the Salt Lake Tribune. Some privately owned courses, including Coral Canyon Golf Course and SunRiver Golf Club, actually increased their water use between 2018 and 2022. The mercury tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit here more than 50 days each year, so it takes an exorbitant amount of water to keep the fairways lush year-round: about 177 million gallons annually for each course, or roughly eight times the national average. And if the region continues to grow at its current breakneck rate, existing water supplies — from wells, springs and the Virgin River — will be severely strained. That prospect has some local and state officials backing a proposed pipeline that would carry Colorado River water from the ever-shrinking Lake Powell to this corner of the Utah desert. With or without the pipeline, the region is likely to face severe water rationing, with golf and lawns likely seeing the first cuts. Washington County’s forthcoming drought contingency plan could require cities to cut their water use by up to 30% in a worst-case scenario. “And if you look about where they would cut their water usage,” said Washington County Water Conservancy District Manager Zach Renstrom, “it really would come to large grassy areas, such as golf.”
In a bid to avoid future mandated cuts, St. George is scrambling to reduce its water use now. Under Renstrom’s guidance, the city passed sweeping conservation ordinances early this year — the toughest in Utah, but still mild compared to those in Las Vegas. Three of the four city-owned golf courses now use treated wastewater for irrigation rather than potable or “culinary” grade water. Las Vegas shifted to reused water for the majority of its courses by 2008. Cowan said the city-owned courses are beginning to remove ornamental grass from non-play areas. So far this year, the county has removed more than 264,000 square feet of grass. While that may sound like a lot, it’s only about six acres across the entire county, or roughly 4% of one local golf course. Even with those measures in place, Renstom says the halcyon days for golf in southwestern Utah need to end: “I’ve had a couple of developers come to me recently and want to talk about golf courses, and I flat-out said, ‘I won’t provide the water.’”
For now, though, the county still has some water to spare. St. George has secured $60 million for a wastewater treatment plant, all while stashing almost two years of reserves in a network of reservoirs. “We have a lot of water stored away,” said Ed Andrechak, water program manager for Conserve Southwest Utah, a sustainability advocacy nonprofit. If the county enforced the strict conservation rules that Las Vegas has, he believes it could grow at the blistering pace it’s projected to over the coming years.
But Andrechak worries that, ultimately, a culture of profligacy will be the barrier to conservation, not money or technical know-how: “We just don’t think water rules apply to us here,” he said. Andrechak cataloged a number of examples: a 1,200-foot lazy river under construction at the Black Desert golf resort in Ivins; the Desert Color community, which built around an artificial lake that Andrechak described as a “giant evapo-pond”; another three man-made lakes for the Southern Shores water-skiing-housing complex in Hurricane, and perhaps most bewildering, a Yogi Bear-themed water park east of St. George. The water park will require 5 million gallons or more of culinary-grade drinking water annually for rides like one nicknamed the “Royal Flush,” a toilet bowl-shaped slide. The Sand Hollow golf course next door gulps up 60 times as much water. “We’re 23 years into a mega drought, and yet my struggle here is that we’re not really that concerned about it,” Andrechak said. “That’s the culture.”
“We’re 23 years into a mega drought, and yet my struggle here is that we’re not really that concerned about it.”
This culture is enabled and even nurtured by policy: St. George’s water rates are among the lowest in the West, which results in bigger profits for course operators and more affordable green fees, but also disincentivizes conservation. “The whole idea has been to have low (water) rates to take care of the citizens by making golf affordable,” said Dehlin. “Having affordable water is important for the growth of the game and to keep our facilities in the conditions that we do. And that’s one thing about golf courses in Utah in general: they’re very well-manicured, very well-kept,” Dehlin said. “And yes, well-irrigated.”
As the nation’s second-largest reservoir recedes, a once-drowned ecosystem emerges
If you want to see the Colorado River change in real time, head to Lake Powell.
At the nation’s second-largest reservoir, water levels recently dipped to the lowest they’ve been since 1968. As the water recedes, a breathtaking landscape of deep red-rock canyons that cradle lush ecosystems and otherworldly arches, caverns and waterfalls is emerging.
On a warm afternoon after the reservoir had dipped to a record low, Jack Stauss walked along a muddy creek bed at the bottom of one of those canyons. He works as the outreach coordinator for Glen Canyon Institute, a conservation nonprofit that campaigns for the draining of the reservoir and highlights the natural beauty of Glen Canyon, which was flooded in the 1960s to create Lake Powell.
“I call this the moon zone,” Stauss said, as his shin-high rubber boots splashed through cold pools and eddies. “There are ecosystems that thrive in these side canyons, even when they’ve been de-watered for just, like, four years. You start to see stuff come back on a really unprecedented scale.”
Lake Powell is already receiving a major springtime boost. Until July, snow from an epic winter in the Rocky Mountains will melt and flow into the reservoir, and portions of those side canyons will flood anew. But for a brief moment in the late winter and early spring of 2023, Powell was creeping lower by the day. The falling water levels have created a harrowing visual reminder. Climate change has put the West’s key water supply on the ropes. At the same time, the drop reveals a spectacular landscape that environmentalists have heralded as a “lost national park.”
Stauss – an environmentalist who refers to Lake Powell as “the reservoir” – invited a small group of adventurous water wonks to chronicle its historically low water levels. He ambles along through the ankle-deep water, pointing up toward the infamous “bathtub rings,” chalky white mineral deposits on the canyon walls that serve as visual markers of the reservoir’s heyday.
“It’s staggering,” Stauss said. “The scale is hard to wrap your head around. The fact that the whole time we were just hiking, we would have been underwater, is shocking.”
The high water line, set in the early 1980s, is more than 180 feet above our heads. Even last summer’s high water mark is about eye level.
Reminders of Glen Canyon’s return to some form of pre-reservoir normal aren’t always as static as the bathtub rings on canyon walls. All around our feet, the shallow water teems with life. The crystal-clear creeks are full of spindly bugs that float on the water’s surface. Occasionally, toads jump from the stream’s sandy banks. Lizards bask in patches of sun. Bird calls echo off the smooth walls and melt into a distorted chorus.
Teal Lehto, who makes short videos about the Colorado River on TikTok under the name “WesternWaterGirl,” was also on the expedition. She pushed past a dense thicket of willows as we hiked through the canyon.
“It’s really, really interesting seeing the way that the ecosystem is recovering,” Lehto said. “And then there’s a little bit of heartbreak knowing that this area is probably going to be submerged again in a couple of months.”
After spending decades under mostly-still water, these canyons are laden with heaps of sediment that settled onto on the lake’s floor. Towering, crumbly banks of sand and dirt line the bottom of each side canyon, often high enough that some of the group’s ski enthusiasts try to carve down, sliding across the loose deposits in their sandals.
As those sandy banks start to erode, they also reveal traces of human activity. Old beer cans, golf balls, and other tattered bits of unidentifiable trash poke through the sediment, leaving lasting reminders of Powell’s double-life: a bustling haven for recreation, and a key piece of water storage infrastructure.
‘Nature bats last’
The group’s boat – a rented pontoon boat with plenty of space for the camera gear, camping setups and loaded coolers we’ve piled towards the back – wasn’t particularly agile. Stauss carefully piloted the craft through a “ghost forest,” where the blackened, skeletal tips of cottonwood trees are just seeing the light of day after decades underwater.
“Every time you come down here, it’s sort of a different game of steering the boat through stuff,” he said. “It’s kind of exciting, actually, like a little puzzle.”
After a slow cruise around the eerie labyrinth of treetops, Stauss leaned the accelerator back into neutral. The boat idled in front of the messy, muddy delta of the Escalante River. The river carries snowmelt about 90 miles through Southeast Utah before it runs into Lake Powell, in an area which was once the free-flowing Colorado River.
Another member of the expedition, Len Necefer, was in this same spot last year. Necefer, a member of the Navajo Nation, founded the consulting and media group NativesOutdoors and holds a PhD in engineering and public policy.
“It’s constantly changing,” he said. “In a few weeks you’ll be able to motor around and go up to Willow Canyon and all that. But right now it’s in this sort of crazy zone of transition.”
The group ponders a trek out onto the delta itself but decides against venturing into the mud, where footing looks uncertain. As the boat cruised into a U-turn, Necefer posited that “nature bats last.”
“Bottom of the ninth, end of a baseball game, nature is at bat and basically has the final say on what happens,” he said.
Nature is taking its last licks in nearly every corner of the sprawling reservoir. Elsewhere, a natural stone arch, once completely submerged, is now so high above the water that you can drive a boat underneath.
At the reservoir’s marinas, receding water has thrown a curveball to Lake Powell’s powerhouse recreation industry. In 2019, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area attracted 4.4 million visitors, more than Yellowstone National Park. The National Park Service says tourism brought $502.7 million to local economies.
But the recreation area – a world-renowned hotspot for houseboaters, wakeboarders, and jet skiers – has taken a hit.
At marinas along Lake Powell, the distance between the parking lot and the shore of the reservoir has gotten dramatically longer over the past two decades.
At Bullfrog Marina, where Stauss rented the pontoon boat, what was once a gentle ramp right next to the parking lot is now a strip of concrete hundreds of feet long. Docks and buoys once moored in water dozens of feet deep now lie crooked and dusty on the desert ground.
In the past few years, the National Park Service has had to make the Bullfrog Marina ramp even longer, chasing the water as it recedes. Further upstream, the Hite Marina, once a busy put-in for boats, is stranded so far away from the water that it is now shuttered.
‘Speechless’ at the Cathedral
Each hike into a new side canyon was the same. Stauss pushed the bow of the pontoon boat into the muddy shore, and the group hopped out clad with backpacks full of cameras. At each new mooring, the path was only visible a few dozen yards up the canyon before a dramatic curve obscured the route ahead.
On one hike, an extra-squishy patch of mud turned out to be quicksand. The trekkers tap danced across it, careful not to sink too deep, but egged each other on to test its limits. Filmmaker Ben Masters, a member of the expedition, wriggled around until he was waist deep and needed a hand to get unstuck.
“Indiana Jones taught me to stop resisting,” Lehto said as Masters pulled himself out of the muck.
After about a half hour of strolling, the crew got what it came for – a rare glimpse of Cathedral in the Desert.
Awe-inspiring as they are, the side canyons can blur together after a few hours of plodding through relatively indistinct curves in the rock.
This one is different.
The hikers round a corner and come upon a red-rock cavern. The group, chatty on the way in, falls silent for a moment.
“I’m kind of speechless, which is really funny for me, because I always have something to say,” said Lehto, the TikTok creator. “But it is gorgeous. It’s amazing to me to imagine that this was all underwater, and it will be underwater again soon.”
The canyon tapered into a kind of dome, where only narrow slivers of sunlight peek through. In one corner, at the foot of a giant sand mound, a thin waterfall trickled from above. The rivulet snaked through a crack in the rock before it dribbled into a frigid, still pool and echoed through the cavern.
“I kind of wish there was a choir here because I think it would be really beautiful,” Lehto said. “Anybody know how to sing?”
Nobody in the group chimes in. Most are silent, staring up toward the top of the waterfall and contemplating the best way to position their cameras.
After a few minutes of silent marveling, Stauss provides some context.
Cathedral in the Desert made a brief above-water appearance in 2005, only to be submerged again until 2019. Since then, fluctuating water levels have flooded in and out of the pocket, limiting the waterfall’s height.
“People used to boat up 100 feet above the waterfall,” he said. “It’s something we’ve been waiting for for a long time. It’s another one of these markers of restoration to see Cathedral come back and to know that it’s not just a fraction of what it once was, but it’s going to be full size.”
After the fall, a rise
Standing under the Cathedral’s ceiling of smooth desert stone, Stauss pondered the future of a region where Lake Powell, and the rest of the Colorado River’s sprawling network of storage infrastructure, are due for an overhaul.
“I don’t think we should just think that the drawdown of these reservoirs is over,” he said. “I think we should use the moment to rethink completely how we store, use and conserve water across the West—and I think Glen Canyon should be at the heart of that conversation.”
In some circles, Glen Canyon is a major thread in conversations about water management. Environmentalists argue that Powell should be drained and Glen Canyon should be allowed to return completely. Recreators disagree, and water managers have shown reluctance to break so sharply from the status quo.
But the Colorado River’s rapid drying has pushed the idea of draining Lake Powell from the fringe and given a semblance of legitimacy to water management ideas once considered far-fetched. The river, which supplies tens of millions across the Southwest, has faced dry conditions since around 2000. The seven U.S. states which share its water have been caught in a standoff about how to cut back on demand.
This year, deep mountain snow promises a serious boost, the likes of which have only been seen a handful of times in the past two decades. Runoff is expected to raise the reservoir’s surface by about 50 to 90 feet by this July.
But even the most cautious runoff estimates would leave the reservoir less than 40 percent full. Its levels will again begin to drop over the fall and winter.
One year of strong snow won’t be nearly enough to pull the reservoir out of trouble. Climate scientists say the Colorado River would need five or six winters like this one to rescue its major reservoirs from the brink of crisis.
The past few springs delivered relatively low runoff, leading to summers fraught with mandatory water cutbacks and emergency releases from smaller reservoirs – efforts primarily focused on keeping water in Lake Powell.
Water managers are under pressure to keep water flowing through hydroelectric turbines within Glen Canyon Dam, which holds back Powell. After decades as a rock-solid emblem of the nation’s Cold War era expansion into the West, dropping water levels are threatening one of the dam’s primary functions. If water dips too low, the federal government could be forced to shut off hydropower generators that supply electricity to 5 million people across seven states.
This wet winter will ease some of that pressure, although water managers have publicly emphasized the need to avoid “squandering” the benefits of an unusually snowy year. The favorable conditions could relieve the need for emergency changes to Colorado River management, allowing the seven states which share its water to wait until 2026 for broader changes. The current operating guidelines for the river are set to expire that year, and water managers are expected to come up with more permanent cutbacks to water demand before that happens.
Amid tense negotiations and pre-2026 posturing, environmentalists like Stauss and his colleagues at Glen Canyon Institute are arguing for a future which cuts out a need for Lake Powell entirely – decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam and storing Powell’s water in other reservoirs.
In the meantime, Stauss relished the brief glimpse at what that might look like.
“It’s a scary future for water in the West,” he said. “But as far as Glen Canyon goes, it’s a pretty amazing silver lining.”
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC, and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.
Native Hawaiians are overrepresented in prisons. Here’s how cultural education could help.
Alisha Kaluhiokalani spent most of her first year at Hawaii’s only women’s prison alone in a 6-by-8 foot cell.
She fought, broke the rules, and lashed out at everyone around her. Because of that, she was frequently sent to “lock” – what everyone at the Women’s Community Correctional Center called solitary confinement.
On a rare afternoon in the prison yard Kaluhiokalani heard a mellow, hollow sound. “What was that?” she whispered to herself.
She looked across the yard and saw a prison staff member playing the ukulele.
“You play?” he asked.
She nodded, taking the instrument and starting to strum. She sang “I Kona,” a traditional Hawaiian song loved by her father.
“You want to continue to play that?” the man asked her.
“Yes,” she said.
“Stay out of lock.”
So she did.
It was the ukulele, a Hawaiian language class, and her encounter with the man in the yard more than 20 years ago that changed Kaluhiokalani’s educational trajectory.
‘Not Knowing Who You Are’
Native Hawaiians like Kaluhiokalani are disproportionately locked up in the Hawaii criminal justice system, making up only 20% of the general population but 40% of people in prison. Similar imbalances are true for Indigenous people across the country.
Among other states with significant overrepresentation of Indigenous people are Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative. Native women in particular have higher incarceration rates than the general population.
Native Hawaiians are more likely to struggle with addiction, drop out of school and go to prison. Many feel alienated from Western education systems, Kaluhiokalani said, and that their cultural identity has been suppressed in the wake of historical losses of land and language.
“They call that the ‘eha … the hurt, and not knowing who you are,” she said.
That was something she has struggled with personally. She has often felt like a screw up given the life she has lived, she said. There have been times in her life when she had a hard time seeing herself as anything other than an addict or a prisoner.
Kaluhiokalani became pregnant with her first child at 17. She finished her GED before the baby was born by taking classes at night. Her boyfriend, Jacob, enlisted in the National Guard, and over the next few years they had three more children. During that time, they both struggled with addiction and cycled in and out of jail. She went to prison for the first time on drug-related charges at the age of 23.
In prison, shortly after that first year in solitary, Kaluhiokalani enrolled in her first college class, Hawaiian 101.
“That was a tipping point,” she said.
Being able to learn her language taught her about her identity, helped her see that there was a place for her in higher education. After that, she started working in the prison’s education department and created informal Hawaiian culture classes for her peers.
“I full-force dedicated myself to my culture, to helping people,” Kaluhiokalani said.
All higher education in prison has been shown to reduce recidivism, but incorporating culture into college programs can empower incarcerated Native Hawaiians in different ways, said Ardis Eschenberg, chancellor of Windward Community College.
“Pushing back on the narratives of colonization and racism through Hawaiian studies,” she said, “fights the very systems that have led to our unjust incarceration outcomes and underscores the agency and value of our students in education, community and society.”
A Lack of Programs
Despite the benefits, there are few college programs in the United States that specifically target Indigenous people in prison. Windward Community College’s Pu‘uhonua program is an exception. It’s the only higher education institution in Hawaii offering culturally focused classes in prison, and one of only two offering degree programs.
Last fall, the college started an associate’s degree in Hawaiian studies at Halawa Correctional Facility, a medium-security men’s prison. The college was selected for a federal program known as Second Chance Pell, which has provided federal financial aid to people in prison on a pilot basis since 2015.
Eschenberg said that their focus on cultural education for incarcerated Indigenous students is part of Windward’s mission as a Native Hawaiian-serving institution. Almost 43% of their students on campus are Native Hawaiian, the highest in the University of Hawaii system.
For Native Hawaiians, learning about their culture is “validating them in a society where so much of Hawaiian existence has been invalidated in history,” Eschenberg said. And cultural education, she adds, benefits everyone.
“There’s robust research that shows that even outside of Native Hawaiian studies, ethnic studies courses in general helped to build resilience and success for students.”
Windward has also offered a psycho-social developmental studies certificate with coursework in sociology, psychology, and social work at the women’s prison since 2016. They offer Hawaiian studies classes as electives, and focus on the Hawaiian context for the other coursework, Eschenberg said.
In addition, Windward faculty teach Hawaiian music-related coursework, such as ukulele and slack-key guitar, at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility. The students earn both high school and college credit.
The college’s prison education program has primarily been funded by a five-year U.S. Education Department grant for Native Hawaiian-serving institutions that runs out this year. The expansion of Pell Grant eligibility for people in prison in July will help sustain the Pu‘uhonua program going forward. Eschenberg said that Pell dollars will help pay for instructor salaries for courses taught inside, but there are still costs not covered by federal financial aid.
Eschenberg had hoped that the Hawaii Legislature would approve a bill appropriating state funding for staff positions, such as academic counselors and coordinators, to support the Pu`uhonua program because those positions aren’t covered by Pell Grants. The bill stalled in the Legislature in April. Eschenberg said she’s currently applying for two federal grants to secure the necessary funding to keep the program running.
Elsewhere, other college-in-prison programs also have started to provide more opportunities for people to focus on their own cultures. In California, San Francisco State University last year created an ethnic studies certificate in state juvenile facilities. Portland State University’s prison education program also recently received a national grant to offer humanities courses focused on identity, including Indigenous Nations Studies, at Oregon’s only women’s prison.
While more programs in the United States are offering ethnic studies classes, few of those courses focus on Native people. Full degrees like Windward’s Hawaiian studies program specifically focused on Indigenous language and culture are even rarer, said Mneesha Gellman, political scientist and director of the Emerson Prison Initiative, which offers a bachelor’s degree in Massachusetts. Gellman’s research focuses on Indigenous language access and education.
Much of the cultural learning that currently occurs in prisons is informal education offered through community groups, prison arts organizations, or classes organized by incarcerated people. Those are valuable, Gellman said, but more academic programs should incorporate culturally relevant curriculum into traditional degree pathways.
Having culturally relevant content makes higher education in general more relatable to Indigenous students, she added, so they are more likely to go after a degree in the first place. And that in turn helps them get the credentials they need to get jobs when they leave prison.
A Wake-Up Call
While Kaluhiokalani’s path through education has had plenty of detours, a connection to her culture has resonated throughout. When she thinks about her elementary school years, she remembers the kupuna– Native Hawaiian elders – who would visit her school to share their cultural knowledge.
“Everything that I learned, I held on to …I loved to sing, play the ukulele, and dance hula.”
Kaluhiokalani grew up in Honolulu less than a mile from Waikiki beach, where she learned to surf.
She associates Waikiki with her father, Montgomery “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani, who was one of the top young surfers in the United States in the 1970s. As a young teenager, she would hang out with him at the beach and smoke pot. Buttons, too, struggled with addiction throughout his life.
“I was a surfer, party animal, like my dad,” she said.
Kaluhiokalani was in and out of prison for most of her 20s and early 30s. Her father’s death in 2013 was a wake-up call, she said, for her to do things differently when she got out.
In 2017, Kaluhiokalani was released for the last time. A few years later, she ran into a woman she had been incarcerated with who encouraged her to enroll in college. She immediately signed up at Windward when she found out there was free tuition for Native Hawaiians and she could pursue an associate’s degree in Hawaiian studies. She wanted to use what she learned in her classes to use Native Hawaiian practices to help others in the criminal justice system.
The Hawaiian language class, and the ukulele in the prison yard, started Kaluhiokalani on a 20-year journey. She earned an associate’s degree last year from Windward and then, this month, she crossed the stage to receive her bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Hawaii Manoa.