On Dec. 4, President Donald Trump announced in Utah that the two-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument would be cut in half, and Bears Ears National Monument would be cut 85 percent to just 202,000 acres. It’s the biggest reduction of protected public land in American history.
Reaction to Trump’s decision to shrink these two national monuments (with plans to shrink more) has been swift from environmental, indigenous rights and public land advocates across the country who say Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears are home to myriad geologic, biologic and cultural treasures worthy of protecting.
Presidents Clinton and Obama originally protected the sites via the Antiquities Act, which allows the federal government to protect certain areas of civic value from development and other potentially harmful uses.
Utah’s Bears Ears is home to millenia-old art and artifacts from indigenous peoples, as well as countless celebrated formations amid its rocky red canyon landscape. Grand Staircase-Escalante is home to a cradle of biodiversity, wherein numerous species have been discovered.
However, Grand Staircase-Escalante also sits atop massive coal deposits and the new boundaries open up areas where oil and gas leases can now be executed. The boundaries of Bears Ears, meanwhile, were redrawn to protect small segments of the monument and will now no longer protect areas where uranium mining and oil and gas drilling are highly likely to proceed.
Just a day after the shrinking of those monuments were announced, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said he would be recommending the reduction of four more national monuments: Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon and California, Gold Butte in Nevada, and two oceanic monuments.
The argument Trump and Zinke have made to justify these moves is that the federal government has overreached with the Antiquities Act, which calls for protection of the smallest possible area on lands deemed to be worthy of protection, and that limited budgets would be better utilized elsewhere.
“No one values the splendor of Utah more than the people of Utah — and no one knows better how to use it. Families will hike and hunt on land they have known for generations, and they will preserve it for generations to come,” said Trump announcing the decisions.
When Trump ordered Zinke earlier this year to review the 27 monuments that were larger than 100,000 acres and signed into protection during the last 25 years, it was largely assumed Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, given the natural resources on which they sat, would be imperiled, along with several others. Thus, the reaction from advocates for those designations has been unequivocal: this was a move not in the interest of protecting public land, but one to appease special interests.
“Stripping protections from these lands is a craven gift to mining and fossil fuel interests. The Trump administration continues to find new ways to transfer as many public resources as it possibly can away from working people and into the bank accounts of its political funders,” said Colorado State Senate Democratic Leader Lucia Guzman in a statement.
Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, said the resizing recommendations from Zinke to Trump do not provide any public benefit.
“These recommendations make clear the unprecedented influence of the lobbyists and special interests that now run the Interior Department, and reveal how far Secretary Zinke is willing to go to sell out his fellow Westerners for short-term political gain,” Saeger said. “This shameful land grab goes against President Roosevelt’s legacy, and will rob future generations of the public land protections that have preserved our Western way of life.”
Prolonged protests against the monuments’ resizing from the indigenous community are now coalescing into a lawsuit filed against the administration. Five tribes (Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian) came together to file a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court hours after Trump’s announcement, claiming that a president only has the right under the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments, not modify or revoke monument designations. Earthjustice also filed a lawsuit against the administration on behalf of several other environmental groups.
But it’s not just oil and gas drilling that a monument designation protects lands from: ranching, ATV travel, infrastructure, resource mining, logging and more can all wreak havoc on the sensitive ecosystems found on these lands. And protecting only what’s been found in these monuments limits the ability for historians and researchers to find what is likely to be many more significant cultural, biological and geological sites.
“The 1.35 million acres of Bears Ears is a small region within our country. It’s appalling that one could think it’s not worthy of continued protection,” said Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, vice-chair for Western Leaders Network and former Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council member, in a statement. “There are over 10,000 archaeological sites documented at Bears Ears. The biggest concern is that there are many undocumented.”
Worse yet for those angry about Trump’s monument reductions is that there could be many more to come. The Western Values Project believes Zinke will open up land near “North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, and right next to Livingston, Montana, a gateway community just outside of Yellowstone National Park.”
To be clear, it’s not just advocacy groups that have expressed concern over the reduction of these national monuments, but polls have shown mixed results. A poll by the Salt Lake Tribune and University of Utah found Utahns slightly favored reducing Bears Ears, but rejected changing Grand Staircase-Escalante’s boundaries. Colorado College’s State of the Rockies’ January poll found 47 percent of respondents in favor of keeping Bears Ears’ designation and 32 percent against it. And of the unprecedented 3 million comments filed by members of the public to the Department of the Interior in this case, more than 99 percent expressed opposition to changing the monuments’ boundaries, according to a study by Key Log Economics, funded by the Wilderness Society.
Regardless, Mary McGann, vice chair of Utah’s Grand County Council, argues the future of this land isn’t solely up to the discretion of local governments, people or industries.
“This land isn’t owned by the people of Utah or a county; it’s owned by everyone in the United States of America,” she said. “The majority of public comments support Bears Ears. To ignore that is inappropriate and a slap in the face to the many who have worked hard to create this monument.”