President Trump is expected to make an appearance in southern Utah Monday to announce the largest elimination of protected areas in American history by removing a total of 2 million acres from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.
The announcement is the culmination of a weird and wild ride that began in February when Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a resolution urging the President to rescind Bears Ears National Monument, setting into motion a series of unprecedented actions by the executive branch and a storm of controversy which has involved everyone from politicians to athletes to Native Americans to outdoor brand, Patagonia.
Having trouble keeping track of it all? You’re not alone. As the controversy now shifts from the internet into the courtroom with several parties vowing to sue President Trump upon the official rescinding of the monuments, here’s a breakdown of what's gone down and why it matters.
What is a National Monument, Anyway?
A National Monument is not the same thing as a National Park. At the heart of the debate over Bears Ears is how monuments are created and what they can comprise.
National parks exist to protect places of scenic, inspirational, educational or recreational value, and must contain a minimum of 1,000 hectares to ensure sufficient space for recreation and natural diversity. Parks are designated by Congress, meaning they require a bill or a resolution to be passed by a majority of members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Well-known national parks include Zion, Yellowstone and Glacier.
National monuments, on the other hand, exist to protect a specific natural, cultural or historic feature, and are generally smaller than parks as the designation only requires one item of interest. Unlike the act of Congress required to create a national park, monuments are established unilaterally by the president under the Antiquities Act, which was enacted in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt and has since been used by a total of 16 presidents who have designated 157 national monuments under this authority. Monuments include the Statue of Liberty, Muir Woods, and of course, Bears Ears.
A common misconception about national monuments is that they prohibit traditional land uses like hunting, fishing, extraction of oil and gas, mining, cattle grazing, camping, and use of motorized vehicles. When a monument is created, however, all existing permitted land uses are typically grandfathered in. In Bears Ears, for example, all aforementioned activities are currently permitted, including an active lease for a uranium mine.
The Bears Ears Backstory (In a Nutshell)
Efforts to designate the Bears Ears buttes and surrounding land in Utah’s San Juan County as a national monument began in the 1930s as an attempt to protect historical and cultural Native American sites. The area contains ancient ruins, extensive petroglyphs and artifacts, as well as one of the most complete paleontological fossil records, dating back 300 million years and chronicling the rise of vertebrate life on land.
A 2009 raid of suspected looters’ homes revealed over 40,000 artifacts stolen from the area.
Pressure to protect the area mounted in 2015 when five Native American tribes formed an unprecedented alliance in the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, joining with conservation groups to submit an official proposal to President Obama. In December 2016, after extensive review, Obama created Bears Ears National Monument, comprising 1.3 million acres in southeastern Utah as federally protected public land.
The entire Utah congressional delegation opposed the move, wishing to maintain control over the land themselves rather than have it managed by the Bureau of Land Management or any of the other federal agencies that oversee national monuments.
The Drama Begins
In March 2017, President Trump announced he’d be reviewing all monuments designated since 1996 and comprising over 100,000 acres, criticizing the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument designations made by President Obama as “a massive federal land grab” and an “egregious abuse of federal power.” The announcement devastated conservationists and delighted local Utah government.
Removing federal protections would give control of that land back to the state of Utah, allowing them to sell the land to the highest bidder or permit additional revenue-generating resource extractions like oil and gas drilling. In October 2016, for example, Utah’s Trust Lands Administration opted to sell 3,700 acres of state property, a move that ultimately generated $5.52 million for the state.
Regaining ownership of the land could also symbolize a broader shift toward more governmental authority at the state level and less federal oversight — a core tenant of the Conservative agenda in general.
Proponents of protecting Bears Ears point to the fact that historically, when states have control, 70 percent of the land is sold off to the highest bidder and what happens to the land after that is anyone's guess. Putting the land into the hands of an owner willing to extract economic resources at the cost of the vast cultural, historical, archeological, geological and recreational resources present within the Bears Ears borders would irreversibly change the landscape and likely destroy part of many local tribes’ heritage there.
Of note, however, is that Bears Ears has only been a federally protected monument for one year. If the Utah government believed it could generate a meaningful amount of revenue by selling land parcels or extraction leases in the area, they’ve had plenty of time to do so (but haven’t).
Uranium mining is the most viable commodity in the area, but the value of uranium has declined so dramatically in the last decade that several U.S. mines have been all but abandoned.
Buzzwords: Zinke, Review, Recommendation
After Trump’s announcement in March, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took the reigns on a review process that sought to assess what, if any, changes should be made to the 27 monuments in question.
Zinke opened the matter up for public comment, during which nearly 3 million people weighed in, with 99.2 percent of those people voicing opposition to the proposed elimination or weakening of protections.
Regardless, a private memo submitted in September by Zinke to President Trump outlined recommendations to shrink several monuments, including Bears Ears. Critics of the recommendation assert that Zinke failed to include input from stakeholders including the 30 Native American tribes with ties to the area, the Forest Service, and the American public.
A lawsuit was filed in November on behalf of six organizations whose requests for information on the national monument review process went unanswered by Zinke and the White House.
Trump’s announcement on Monday will likely set into motion a barrage of lawsuits filed against him by Patagonia, various tribal organizations and conservationist groups. At the crux of the lawsuits will be the Antiquities Act, and whether or not the president is afforded the same authority to reverse monuments as he (or she) is to create them.
While former presidents have trimmed or altered monument boundary lines 18 times in the past, none have done so since the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act was enacted and none have been challenged in court.
We are currently in uncharted territory. This time, that territory is a 1.3 million acre swath of breathtaking red rocks, arches, canyons and desert that has been held sacred for millennia and which has gone from unprotected to protected and back again, all within the last 12 months.
Dinosaurs walked there. Native Americans learned how to thrive there. Adventure athletes learned how to test the limits of crack climbing and the value of trail mapping there. The old folk song asserts that this land is your land, this land is my land, but for now, it’s Utah’s land (again), and its future is hard to predict through all the dust of the desert.
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