The Running Bum

Running Wild With Words

unnamed-1.jpgAnother endless drive across the desert. Dust swirls. silent mind.

Arrival feels as impossible as the beer I can’t quite reach in the ice chest behind my seat.

Visions of sitting outside by a campfire at sunset. A night walk through the sage brush. Being in one place for a night.

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Stillness can only be found -inside- it seems.

Driving on down the bumpy dirt road. Tire goes flat. Nothing was built to last, but sure was made to fix.

RoadTrip-5.jpgThe circles continue. Closer and closer together. Tighter turns. Nevada, Utah, Arizona, California. Home on the wide open western range. Places become the familiar faces, to a neighbor on the way home to where? I’ll never get there. There’s no place to arrive. I’m a vehicle. I pass, write on through.

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Photo Credit Jay Kolsch

You are uninviting, treacherous and hostile but also hauntingly beautiful, mesmerizing, inescapable. I am possessed by enigma. Unable to resist long trips to see you. Deep inside your canyons I find myself in a lovesick spell, drawn towards each twist, turn, pour off and log jam with no concern for the danger that inevitably I will face. Your direct sun bakes the sand directly into the cracks of my dry skin as you envelop me. Exposed in your interminable horizon I am free. Squeezed between your narrow passages I want to know every inch of you. And yet I know I will never do more than scratch my feet across the surface of your cryptobiotic crust.

You warn me not to visit during summer—you wrongly assume the biting flies and monsoons will keep me away; along with the bitter cold winter storms and impassable wet dirt roads. I can’t quit you.

Running towards you and into myself on a long, narrow, winding route with no markers, I have fallen in love with a place. You etch yourself like rock art onto my soul, like the canyons your thorny brush has carved into my skin.

But the wilderness, the desert, doesn’t love you back.

When I wrote that line, or something like it in my first book, I meant it. And I actually started to believe it. Sitting alone near the Paria river I contemplate why I chose to invest my love, my precious time, on something incapable of loving me back in return. Unrequited. And yet, I always return with the same anticipation, reuniting with a lover I’ve longed for.

Because if you truly love something you go. You spend time with it. You listen to it. You learn from it. You share secrets with it. You look deep inside of it. You immerse yourself in it. You care for it. You expect nothing from it.

And above all, you protect it.

When I get past the noise in my own head, the discomfort bestowed upon me by being near you, I see clearly you love me in your own language. A tinaja filled with water when I need it most. Romantic barrel cactus blooms at my feet. Silky sandy beaches beneath golden sunlight and next to waves of….more golden sandy beaches. Shady coves and slot canyons to incite my imagination. Ribbons of mud in canyon bottoms to gleefully slide across. Sitting alone in silence with you I have companionship with full autonomy. Solitude.

Today, in the desert, sprinting across your sand dunes, finding solace in your deep dark recesses and feeling the warm zephyr winds across my face, I whispered “I love you,” between the narrow canyon walls. The words themselves utterly meaningless, but the way it felt, hand pressed against the striped rocks and warm sun flashing into my eyes, was everything. Alone with you, I relearn the meaning of love.

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At 18,491 Feet Pico De Orizaba is the highest peak in Mexico and the 3rd tallest in North America.

On March 18th Michael Versteeg and I summitted the mountain together. Then  he decided he wanted to run up it.

Two days later he broke the FKT for ascent of the peak by 8 minutes (2:02) and set the standard for also descending the peak (46 minutes) for a total time of 2:48.

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Link to original story: https://www.rei.com/blog/news/staking-a-claim-for-public-lands

“Keep digging!”

I’m slinging an ice axe like a backhoe into the muddy road on Deer Flat, a stretch formerly within the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. My partner, Michael Versteeg, spurs me onward as he too uses his ice axe in an attempt to dig out the front tire of our van, buried up to the wheelbase in the hellacious clay that keeps most everyone off this high-elevation mesa during winter. We are completely stuck and it’s obvious no one has driven down any of these San Juan County roads in weeks.

Morgan and Michael's van in a ditch

It’s hard not to laugh amid our deep frustration and the sweat on our brows, but we press on. We came here to investigate. We’re outdoor athletes staking a mining claim, with no intention of mining.  

On Feb. 2, this swath of Utah land*, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), was reopened to mining claims. Places like Deer Flat are no longer protected within Bears Ears, along with critical areas that used to be part of Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. The loss of protection is a result of President Trump’s December announcement allowing public land boundaries to be reduced. Now, more than 1 million acres are potentially open to “mining, drilling and other industrial activity,” according to The New York Times.

In preceding weeks, news media explored whether there might be an 1870s-style land rush on the now-unprotected land. Headlines read: “A Modern Land Run? Trump move opens Utah to mining claims under 1872 law” (Reuters) and “Uranium Miners Pushed Hard for a Comeback. They Got Their Wish.” (The New York Times). So far we haven’t seen any miners. We haven’t seen anyone. Just Michael Versteeg—writer, climber and Arizona Trail FKT holder—and me, covered in mud, toiling with our “mining tools” to unearth the van, which appears to be perilously close to making Deer Flat its new winter homestead.

The archaic mining laws governing this process were written nearly 150 years ago, raising important questions of efficacy and relevance in 21st century land management: How simple is it to stake a mining claim? How does this process work? Would it be possible for us to go and stake a mining claim, and if so, could it be used as a land preservation tool?

Just a week before the administration’s decision to resize Bears Ears and Grand Staircase took effect, we dreamed up the scenario of effectively “racing” miners in order to “block” them. If successful, perhaps larger conservation groups and corporations could follow suit and we could collectively protect these sensitive areas that are susceptible to future mining.

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We derived the concept of using a mining claim as a potential preservation tool from Michael’s research for an essay he penned about cattle ranching on public lands. He learned about an interesting “fight fire with fire” tactic attempted by the Grand Canyon Trust in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in the ’90s. Michael explains, “The nonprofit purchased some cattle grazing leases to attempt to preserve sensitive areas but that also required leaseholders to actually graze. And just like that, the Grand Canyon Trust entered the cattle business.”

At best, we could use this tactic by staking a mining claim to potentially protect 20 acres of land from mining, while also learning a great deal about the multi-use of our public lands system. In our quest, we quickly discovered the process of staking a claim is not nearly as simple as it sounded.

And if we staked a claim, would we have to actually mine? After all, this would directly counter our original objective (to preserve and protect a swath of land from new mining) and it isn’t really a career path either of us are considering. According to the General Mining Law of 1872, striking a claim requires the following:

  • Erecting corner posts or monuments
  • Placing a monument in a conspicuous place (This can be a three-foot-high stone mound, wooden post or metal post.)
  • Posting a location notice on the monument that must include: the date and location on the ground, the names and addresses of the locators, the name of the claim or site, the acreage claimed and a description of the parcel on the ground (This does not qualify as an official “discovery” of a valuable mineral but simply a claim.)
  • Complying with the requirements of 43 CFR Part 3830, 3832 and 3833 (which implies figuring out what the heck 43 CFR Part 3830, 3832 and 3833 means)

As we read through the mining resources available on the BLM’s website, it appeared to us that striking a claim only required that we:

  • Not put down stakes on prohibited land (like a national monument, which inhibits new claims but not pre-existing claims) or on someone else’s claim
  • Follow the exact parameters/instructions for the type of claim (lode or placer—ours would be a lode)
  • Record the site with the county clerk (which costs $12)
  • Send the recorded documents to state BLM headquarters and pay your fees ($212)

Should your mining claim be approved by the BLM headquarters via this process, you are only required to complete the annual maintenance and assessment work (valued at $100 in improvements to your claim) or file for a waiver (this is the 43 CFR Part 3830, 3832 and 3833 stuff).

In fact, if you do wish to actually mine, staking a claim does not give you the right to actually do so. According to the BLM brochure for mining claims on federal lands, there must be a proven discovery of a valuable hard mineral (another process altogether). If you stake a claim but make no discovery, it is even possible for someone else to come and discover something before you do and take over your claim via a court dispute. Another key piece of information: If you actually make it past these stages, having a claim does not mean you own the land; it merely gives you permission to extract surface minerals. Following the multi-use ethos of the BLM, it is perfectly legal for gas and oil leases, cattle grazing, recreation and any other permissible use to co-exist within the plot of land where you are mining. So, even if we were successful in staking a claim and making a valuable mineral discovery, we would only potentially be protecting 20 acres from other mining activities and not other uses.

To ensure we had all of the correct information and to procure the proper forms, we headed straight for the Monticello, Utah, BLM office on Jan. 31. Dressed in our working pants, brimmed hats and boots, and plenty dirty after living on the road for several weeks (skiing, ice climbing and exploring hot springs all over the West), we certainly felt we looked the part. Here, most of our remaining questions were answered and we were able to get hard copies of the information available online.

Back in the van, I time traveled deep into 147-year-old mining laws and history, while Michael had a modern breakthrough—LR2000. This is the software program the BLM uses to record all active, pending and closed mines, and therefore, our key to discover where mines have been claimed in our areas of interest and what 20-acre plots were still available. Upon entering the world of LR2000, he was treated to a complicated system, difficult even for a man who used bioinformatics (aka complicated computer codes) to study anthrax in a Northern Arizona University lab in his past life. Michael furiously scribbled down numbers and drew lines across our Cedar Mesa/Grand Gulch topo maps and, before the lunch hour was up, had uncovered the information needed to locate mines or free spaces to claim.

We hit the road with stakes in the trunk and dreams of protecting 20 acres of land. Our first stop was the former eastern boundaries of Bears Ears (about two hours outside the town of Blanding) to locate what other claims look like for inspiration and instruction. The area is dotted with active and inactive claims staked next to one another for miles, and all are as simplistic as the 1872 law explicates—four metal stakes in the ground and a monument post in the center. Some mines did have piles of tailings and remnants of old mining activity, like rusted tools and tin cans.

Michael prepares to place stakes 660 feet from their monument, per the requirements of a lode mining claim.

Ready to stake our claim, we made our way up Deer Flat, a plateau on the southwest edge of Elk Ridge, an area rumored to hold the next boom of mining activity in the area, and according to LR2000, also heavily staked out (likely pre-existing claims). As we drove up the winding dirt road, I took in the beautiful views of White Canyon dropping sharply next to us, and the actual “bears ears,” two distinctly shaped, high-elevation Wingate sandstone mesas, in the distance—reminders of the true reason we are here.

High on Deer Flat, conditions changed rapidly. A thin and melting layer of old snow sat atop a perilously thick and slick layer of muddy clay. Our van skidded into a thigh-high dirt embankment, delaying us four hours.

It was 4pm on Friday and we had nothing to show for our work except a damn near empty gas tank and everything we needed to stake a claim. After freeing our van, Michael and I looked at each other—why not keep going? Windows down, I hung my head out scouting locations as my tumbleweed of blonde hair whipped around in the wind. We settled on a spot just below the road that jutted out across the rim of Deer Canyon. We pulled over and loaded up our packs with four metal stakes, materials for our monument and location notice sign, a climbing rope (to measure the dimensions of our lode claim), an ice axe and a few beers. We jumped down the sandy roadside, hopped over the boulders and tiptoed around cacti.

Morgan tapes their notice of location to the monument at the center of the mining claim.

“This is it!” Michael stood on top of a rocky outcropping, declaring the place for our monument. He hammered metal stakes into the ground with an ice axe and inserted a 4-foot length of plastic tubing and built a rock pile to support the base. I taped our location notice across the finished design officiating our claim. The moment stung with irony—how much time, work and money we put in this week for an unknown, if not outright frivolous outcome. The only claim we were staking was our love for the land.

As the sun set, Michael and I came to terms with the fact that we would not be able to finish staking our claim before dark. We set up camp alongside our mine and devoured beans and tin cups of whiskey as the stars appeared overhead. I lay wide-awake all night wondering about the uncertain future of this incredible place.

The sun sets over areas formerly within the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument.

Saturday was another working day as we hauled our packs back to our mine monument first thing in the morning. Using our 70-meter climbing rope, we measured and selected the locations for our four stakes. We scrambled over slick rock, held the rope across wide ledges and crawled through dense juniper trees. At each stake, we stopped to take in the views that ranged from dripping springs to sandstone towers, and then moved on to our next marker.

We staked the claim in less than half a day, making this surprisingly the quickest part of the entire process. But since it was a Saturday, we had to wait around until Monday to record the claim with the county clerk and mail the finished documents along with a check to the BLM headquarters in Salt Lake City.

Their claim sits on the edge of a canyon, which made staking it another adventure all its own.

In total it took us six days to research, stake and file for a mining claim. We asked the clerk’s office staff whether they saw a bump in claims since Feb. 2 and they gave no indication there was any activity beyond normal. The LR2000 software can take weeks to update, in addition to the 30 days notice allowed between the date of staking and filing a claim. Therefore, it is yet to be seen whether there was any increase in recent mining claim activities. We did, however, connect with an NBC Left Field reporter, Ali Withers, who came to the area to test the same concept. She completed the process and her approval is still pending. The Salt Lake City BLM office did send us the stamped paperwork for our officially accepted claim dated Feb. 7, along with 36 pages of reference materials—an A+ in the lengthy test of successfully staking a mining claim.

So what was the point?

This is a question Michael and I wrestled with throughout the experience and still do to this day. Our research early on quickly made us aware of just how insignificant our actions would likely be in terms of preserving land. At best, if we executed all procedures to a T (check), paid our fees (check), made a valid and successful discovery of a valuable hard mineral, and maintained and improved our 20 acres, we could potentially prevent someone else from actually mining directly within our plot. Is this a valid way to protect critical areas left out of the new Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments from mining? It certainly is not a very efficient nor an affordable one. Although we plan to maintain and improve the plot at least for the year we are contracted to do so for our claim, it remains to be seen how challenging it will be to hold on to it for that length of time. After all, someone could make a discovery of a valuable mineral and “claim jump” us.

Ultimately, I found that staking your claim isn’t about hammering posts into the ground. It’s about exploring our public lands, learning as much as you can about them and why they need to be protected.


*Author’s note: Although the specific statements about our experience in Bears Ears cannot be directly applied to land no longer protected within Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument—which for instance is being scouted for coal mining versus uranium—we learned that the processes of staking a claim and outcomes as a preservation tactic are very much the same.

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Did you know the public has 60 days to comment on how they feel the lands removed from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments should be managed? These areas still fall under public lands but will be potentially open to new mining, drilling and ranching contracts unless they fall within Wilderness boundaries (ex Dark Canyon in Bears Ears). Beyond this, there are many other considerations necessary for the BLM to protect and maintain both places—this is not just an issue of preventing damaging uses of the land but also activating the federal government to do right by them and use our tax dollars directly within their jurisdiction in a constructive way. Another thing to consider when writing is whether these actions related to Trump’s decision to shrink the monument are even legal at all…..so….WRITE NOW!✏️

Comments on the planning process at Grand Staircase can be emailed to BLM_UT_CCD_Monuments@BLM.gov or via mail at 669 S. U.S. 89, Kanab, UT 84741.

Comments on the Bears Ears planning process can be emailed to blmem>utmonticellomonuments@blm.gov or via mail at P.O. Box 7 Monticello, UT 84535.

So now what? Since President Trump’s decision to shrink Bears Ears National Monument I have been asked almost daily what people can do to get involved, or even to understand what the heck is going on in south east Utah. Before I dig into some of these ideas, I think that its important to remember that this is about a place that deserves and demands respect, protection and education access to the public regardless of the lines drawn or erased on a map. It is my hope that everyone remembers for just a moment what has not changed before or after the politics of a National Monument–that the sacred places are all still there, the hiking routes are fair game for anyone willing to use their two feet and the areas removed from the Monument are still public lands.

Despite the many positives we can focus on (which is how I choose to live my life—anger does little good) the changes obviously make Bears Ears increasingly vulnerable to the effects of other public land uses like mining, drilling and cattle ranching. These always have and will continue to coexist with conservation and recreation on our public lands (and in fact existed in the original Bears Ears NM boundaries as well). Of course careless and greed driven decisions on how to manage our public lands can and will have devastating effects on the environment, historical and sacred sites and ability for the public to enjoy them.

The future of Bears Ears National Monument will now be tied up in court and heated lawsuits for years to come. Conservation groups, tribal alliances and even outdoor big business corporations will collectively pool their resources to fight against the debatable ability of a President to make such a drastic cut on a Monument which directly pushes back against the Antiquities Act. For the average American, but if you’re reading this I doubt you are anything but average, there is no straightforward answer and its easy to wonder what effect, if any, our actions have on the outcome. This is where we must think collectively, if everyone did something, even small, imagine…..

I’m going to stop rambling. I don’t care what your motives for getting involved are. I do not care if we completely agree or see eye to eye about the issue. Heck, you might even be against the Monument but still wish to get involved in the protection of an incredible wilderness area. Or maybe you still aren’t sure what exactly is going on and want to study up before making a decision. I have sourced the following ideas by some of the most incredible and caring minds working tirelessly on this case. There is truly something for everyone here—whether you choose to make the effort to travel and volunteer, donate money or dig deeper into understanding the issue so you can be a beacon of knowledge for others around you that have questions you will have made a difference.

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  1. Study up and visit.

The best way to make an informed choice about helping out in this arena is to understand what you are “working for”. Whether you plan to go to Bears Ears or not understanding the region in terms of terrain, climate, wildlife, public lands boundaries (BLM, Wilderness, Forest Service), uses (cattle ranching, mining, drilling), history and prehistory is an excellent starting point. Fortunately this can be done from anywhere! Both High Country News and Outside Magazine online frequently post up to date content and articles about the issue and its many facets. Shameless plug—The Best Bears Ears National Monument Hikes offers all of this information, along with a critical background breakdown of the history of National Monuments in relation to the current events. I chose to write the book in such a way that it can obviously be used as a tool to go physically explore Bears Ears, but it is also a literary tour through the area for those who cannot go. The route descriptions, photographs and maps are intended to detail what it is actually like in the area, get your bearings and understand the significance of the cultural sites and wildlife along the way. Of course, if you are able to make the effort to get out to this corner of South East Utah that above all will give you the greatest understanding of the magnitude and significance of the 1.35 million acres we are discussing.

  1. Donate

Lawsuits are the primary focus of ALL groups and parties looking to return Bears Ears to its original boundaries. No one group or lawsuit will have the power to change this on its own, but a collective stack of cases and lawsuits WILL carry tremendous clout. Consider making a donation to Utah Dine Bikeyah, UTE PAC, Wilderness Society and Access Fund who are all putting forth a tremendous effort to take this to court. It is important to note that the tribes aren’t getting nearly as much established money as conservation groups and you donation will go major lengths to help the Bears Ears Coalition, Utah Diné Bikéyah, UTE PAC, Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

  1. Voice your opinion

 Write a letter to your representatives. Yes, with pen and paper. Do it. It’s simple, won’t take tons of your time and sends a message to our elected officials that the American public will not sit idly behind a TV screen and watch decisions we are not in favor of go down. An even more direct way to have your stance heard in relation to Bears Ears and public lands is to write a letter to the Forest Service regarding Forest Plans. Periodically the Forest Service sits down to take a look at how the land is being managed and what changes need to be made going forward. Public opinion is a major component of this. Elizabeth Townley, who works for the Utah Forest Service Region 4 (which includes Bears Ears) and hosts the podcast Outlandish about public lands explains, “One of the best ways is to get involved with the agencies that manage them at a local or regional level and develop relationships with the local decision makers.” The Manti La Sal National Forest (which comprises the Abajo Mountains and parts of Elk Ridge in Bears Ears) is up for a revision that will affect the next 20 years of policy and land use. This is a critical opportunity for you to get involved and shape critical public land policy for the next two decades.

  1. Volunteer

 Public lands need public hands more than ever right now. Whether its volunteering for a trail clean up, attending town/public meetings, assisting with outreach and other related activities volunteering your time and/or physical presence will make the biggest and most immediate impact of all. To get some more concrete ideas I suggest subscribing to Utah Dine Bikeyah which according to UTE PAC director Robert Lucero will be, “very active in terms of meetings, outreach and activities for the public to get involved with.” There is also a volunteer section that allows you to propose and offer services. Archaeologist RE Burrillo also suggests that concerned citizens get involved with Wilderness Volunteers inc. or Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding, Utah.

Have another idea of your own? I want to hear it! You can share it in the comments below along with any questions you have about the content in this article or about Bears Ears in general. I’m off the grid most of the time but I will do my best to address questions and comments that can offer the most good for Bears Ears.

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