Hundreds of thousands of comments called for Bears Ears to stay protected.
Credit: Mason Cummings (TWS).
Just a couple weeks after President Trump signed an executive order targeting national monuments, Bears Ears National Monument's May 26th deadline has passed. In the coming weeks, the Trump administration will supposedly review comments on its protected status. After that—by June 10th—Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will make a recommendation about whether to shrink its boundaries, or even whether it should go on being a national monument.
"The Wilderness Society, along with hundreds of thousands of others who care about Bears Ears, submitted comments that show why this monument was designated, and we hope that process will be taken seriously rather than treated as a prelude to a predetermined outcome," said Nada Culver, senior counsel at The Wilderness Society. "A good faith review would only underscore the importance of Bears Ears for preserving sacred sites, fossils and wildlife habitat. We will fight any efforts to undermine the protections already in place."
Huge outpouring of Bears Ears support
The future is uncertain, but we know this much: Thanks to Wilderness Society supporters and wilderness-loving Americans at-large, it will be impossible for the Trump administration to claim "the people" want Bears Ears to have less protection.
A coalition of public lands groups and others estimates that over 685,000 comments were submitted to the Department of the Interior in favor of keeping Bears Ears' current status. A perfunctory review of those comments finds numerous Utahns (and other Americans) testifying to the exceptional tribal culture and physical landscape of the region, lamenting the lack of protection they have received so far and begging Secretary Zinke to keep the monument intact. The advocacy group Center for Western Priorities analyzed a representative sample of 500 comments and reports that 96 percent percent of them were in favor of keeping Bears Ears' and other national monuments' current protection. This squares with Americans' longstanding and oft-documented support of monuments and the authority to designate them under the Antiquities Act.
Anti-Bears Ears decision still likely
Despite this, some reports claim Secretary Zinke has already made up his mind that monument status should be revoked, which would be a shocking and unprecedented move. He traveled to Utah to talk to locals prior to the decision, but has been criticized for marginalizing tribal leaders and anyone who disagrees with the administration's presumed goal of reducing the number and scale of national monuments in America.
If President Trump tries to de-designate or shrink Bears Ears, we will see him in court.
In short, it looks a lot like the Trump White House has rigged the system. Despite your voices, Secretary Zinke is very likely to conclude Bears Ears should be diminished in some fashion--protected less, made smaller or stripped of its status.
What happens next:
- Congress or the administration will act on Zinke's recommendation: Assuming Secretary Zinke recommends de-designating or shrinking Bears Ears, either anti-public lands lawmakers will try to introduce legislation that acts on that recommendation, or the administration (that is, President Trump) will make the unprecedented and legally dubious move of de-designating Bears Ears unilaterally.
- We will pursue legal action: If President Trump tries to de-designate or shrink Bears Ears, we will see him in court. No president has ever acted to revoke an existing national monument and many legal experts, including some who released a recent paper on the issue, say a president doesn't have the authority to do so. Furthermore, 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. So if Trump “only” tries to shrink Bears Ears, he will still have to come through us first.
- We will move to protect other monuments still under review: While Bears Ears' deadline has passed, at least 26 other national monuments are still under review by the Trump administration and at risk of reduced protection. We need to drive comments to the Department of the Interior between now and July 10 to ensure these places are preserved. Secretary Zinke needs to see that Americans will not tolerate any actions to reduce these protections--that pursuing such a program would be politically toxic.
You already answered the call to speak out for Bears Ears—thank you. We hope your thousands of comments will sway Secretary Zinke and help preserve the monument for all time.
But if the Trump regime and its allies continue the attack on Bears Ears, we have to redouble our efforts. Congress would be wary of passing legislation that goes against the wishes of a huge number of people, and it will be vital to remind them about the comments we submitted—that de-designating or shrinking Bears Ears, in addition to being wrong, would be an incredibly unpopular thing to do (our voices are already helping show some members of Congress that attacks on Our Wild will never be okay).
And again, if Trump takes executive action to attack Bears Ears under Zinke's recommendation, we will see him in court.