Utah's Bears Ears National Monument was a textbook case for monument designation, but the Trump regime and allies are trying to reverse its special status.
Credit: Mason Cummings (TWS).
Not long after signing an executive order that would subject at least 24 national monuments to “review” and potentially reduced protection, President Trump has dispatched Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to tour Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for that purpose.
It was a push to rescind or shrink Bears Ears that reportedly motivated the Trump administration--encouraged by Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz and other Utah politicians—to sign the recent order in the first place, the move could have widespread repercussions. The action primarily targets monuments designated since the beginning of 1996 that are 100,000 acres or larger, but could end up affecting more than 50 monuments established in that span, including sites like Colorado’s Browns Canyon National Monument. And once the roadwork has been laid to revisit those monuments, countless others will be at risk.
Photo by Mason Cummings (TWS).
Reducing Bears Ears’ monument status or shrinking its boundaries could leave thousands of sensitive archaeological and cultural sites at risk of vandalism and looting, and it would dash decades of hard work by Native American tribes and others to protect this spectacular and sensitive landscape.
Reducing Bears Ears’ monument status or shrinking its boundaries could leave thousands of sensitive archaeological and cultural sites at risk of vandalism and looting
The attack on Bears Ears goes hand-in-hand with opposition to the Antiquities Act, which President Obama used to confer monument status on Bears Ears in 2016. Passed in 1906, the Antiquities Act authorizes presidents to protect important archaeological, historic and scientific resources on public lands. It has been used on a bipartisan basis by almost every president, a method supported by some 90 percent of voters that forms the backbone of our National Park System.
Sadly, a number of extreme politicians—including those who lobbied Trump to sign his executive order--want to make it much harder to declare monuments, and even tear down existing monuments, as in the case of Bears Ears. To some ideologues, the fight against national monuments is a proxy for anti-federal government animus. But whatever the reasoning, the anti-monument movement does not represent the views of most Americans. On a national level, 90 percent of voters support presidential proposals to protect lands as monuments, while 69 percent oppose efforts to stop this practice. In the West, 80 percent of voters support keeping existing national monuments in place.
Bears Ears monument protection was overdue and popular
Bears Ears National Monument was a textbook case for monument designation. Perhaps nowhere in the world are so many well-preserved cultural resources—from ancient ruins to intricate 1,500-year-old petroglyphs—found within such a striking and relatively undeveloped natural landscape.
But this region has been under attack for years, with dozens of cases of looting, vandalism or other damage, including names gouged into rock art and even "disturbance of human remains." In October 2016, the National Trust For Historic Preservation named the area one of the most "endangered" historical sites in America due to a combination of scant staffing and misuse by visitors.
Bears Ears is considered one of the most "endangered" historical sites in America. Photo by Mason Cummings (TWS).
President Obama's use of the Antiquities Act to protect Bears Ears was the result of concerted advocacy by a coalition of five tribes, supported by 21 others with direct ties to the region—only after legislative proposals failed to fully consider their concerns (critics called one such bill "a disaster" and "a fraud"). But it was also a broadly popular move, with 71 percent of registered Utah voters supporting monument status.
Move to hurt Bears Ears would be an illegal attack on public lands
That President Trump would act on the urging of extreme allies in Congress to ignore Bears Ears' wealth of history and detract from its inviolate status is truly sad. More than that, it is bad politics; Rep. Chaffetz, who has had a streak of anti-public lands misadventures , recently took heavy criticism from Utahns at a town hall meeting over the idea of reversing Bears Ears. Partly spurred by local leaders' anti-Bears Ears sentiment, the Outdoor Retailer show recently opted to leave Utah, taking with it an estimated 50,000 visitors and $45 million in spending each year (after Trump signed his broad anti-monument order, the outdoor apparel company Patagonia threatened to sue the White House).
Trying to drastically shrink the boundaries of Bears Ears, which is presumably one of Trump’s goals, would be legally dubious. No President has ever acted to revoke an existing national monument and numerous legal experts assert that the President lacks the authority to do so – or even to significantly diminish one. Not only would such an action likely be illegal and put sensitive resources at risk, it would also undermine tribal sovereignty. Tribal nations that advocated for monument protection have already appointed official representatives to the newly created Bears Ears Commission, which will help govern the management of the monument. Additionally, multiple courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have repeatedly upheld that the authority to designate national monuments is broad, and includes protecting large landscapes—not just limited areas, as the state of Utah claims.
Beyond the legal intricacies, trying to strip or reduce monument protections in Bears Ears would represent a truly flagrant assault on Our Wild. The radical movement to seize and privatize national public lands has moved from state legislatures to Washington DC, and this would be a huge gain in its favor—a statement that national parks and other public lands don't really belong to all Americans.