National Monument status for the Kaibab Plateau – Blessing or curse?

In the news lately, the Obama administration is considering the possibility of creating a new Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument in Northern Arizona. This large preserve would be carved out of the Kaibab National Forest and other Federal lands nearby.

Grand Canyon Watershed N.M. Map

(GrandCanyonWildlands.org)

This proposal, which has been a goal of environmentalist groups like the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity for some time, would set aside for special protection some 1.7 million acres on the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon that are currently open to a variety of uses under U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management administration. Most of the reports I have seen assume that the controlling agency of the new monument would be changed to the National Park Service, but some other commentary suggests that the area will remain under the control of the Forest Service and BLM.

By way of this National Monument designation, the environmental organizations are hoping to forestall proposed uranium mining operations near the Canyon, as well as reducing or eliminating logging and livestock grazing in the vast evergreen forests that grow in the area. They also wish to close many of the forest roads that now see vehicular traffic. They are supported in this effort by most of the local Indian tribes, and by several of Arizona’s Democratic members of the House of Representatives.

Opposing the environmentalist coalition are the logging, mining and ranching interests that would see their operations restricted, as well as some of the struggling rural communities in the vicinity who depend on those industries for employment and tax revenues. Arizona’s Republican Senators have weighed in against the proposal, also on primarily economic grounds. The Arizona Game and Fish Commission and many Arizona outdoorsmen are concerned that the long tradition of hunting on the North Kaibab is threatened by National Monument designation, despite its status as one of the most heavily studied and well-managed hunts in the nation. 4×4 and motorcycle/ATV enthusiasts are also opposed, as they stand to lose a great deal of access to roads that are currently open to their vehicles.

Satellite view of Kaibab Plateau

NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So how does this question impact the Arizona mushrooming community? After all, the Kaibab Plateau is one of the premier mushroom foraging locales in the state. There are at least 233,000 acres of Ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forest above 6,000 feet elevation on the North Kaibab Ranger District. Almost 170 species of fungi have been documented in the region, and even this long list is incomplete.  Arizona mushroom hunters tell stories of years when there have been staggeringly large fruitings of highly coveted species such as Boletus barrowsii, the famous White King Bolete of the southwestern US, and Amanita “cochiseana”, as our unique Southwestern version of the Caesar’s Amanita is provisionally designated. Although the Kaibab is distant from the population centers of the state, many of our local fungal foragers have made the long trek up there in season.

We’ve been talking about the National Monument issue recently on the Arizona Mushroom Forum Facebook group, and it has provoked some of our most passionate discussion in quite a while. Some of the more ardent environmentalists among us are all in favor of it, while other voices urge caution lest the entire monument be put off-limits to mushroom gathering like many other areas controlled by the National Park Service — most applicably, the adjoining Grand Canyon National Park.

The Park permits visitors to gather pinyon nuts for personal use, but otherwise, no fungi or other plants may be collected unless you are a bona fide scientific researcher who has jumped through many bureaucratic hoops to receive a permit. It’s true that some other parks such as Yosemite National Park allow collection of small quantities of fungi for personal consumption at the site where they are gathered. However, it is highly questionable whether the National Park Service would allow us to continue our current custom of picking substantially larger amounts of mushrooms to take home for preservation and later consumption, as allowed by Forest Service rules.

The advocates of the monument have some reassuring words about preserving the traditional multiple-use management of the National Monument area outside the park boundaries, noting that:

National monument designation provides for continued existing activities, including public access, rights-of-way, sightseeing, mountain biking, hiking, wildlife viewing, birding, hunting, fishing, and many other activities, including traditional tribal access.

Presumably, mushroom collecting is among the “many other activities” they assure us we will be allowed to continue. However, the devil is in the details, and Congress is in the habit of leaving Federal agencies much leeway in the management of their fiefdoms. Without explicit language in the Presidential decree establishing the monument, it is likely that continued access to mushroom picking on this large territory will be at the whim of the incumbent superintendent in charge. Moreover, there is historical precedent for abolishing the National Monument in future, and adding its lands directly to the National Park, as in the case of the former Marble Canyon National Monument that was made an integral part of Grand Canyon National Park in 1975.

I think almost everyone who engages in outdoor recreation on the Kaibab, and certainly anyone who intends to eat fungi grown there, would be in favor of curtailing the uranium mines. But it certainly behooves the mushrooming community to pay close attention to how this is accomplished, and whether our long-standing, sustainable use of the fungal flora that grows there is going to be respected under the new management regime.

If you have an opinion or factual knowledge about how this is going to fall into place, please contribute to the comments below. Better yet, join us on the Facebook group page where the conversation is much more lively. And consider writing a letter to the editor of your local paper, to your representatives in Congress, or to the President himself, urging that our interests be taken into account.

About Christopher May

Chris is a radiologist in private practice in Scottsdale. He is married to Barbara May, with two grown children, Megan and Nick.
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