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Adventure / December 6, 2017

Bears Ears: What all the fuss is about (and what you can do about it)

Written by: Matt Minich

Earlier this week, President Trump signed proclamations to drastically shrink Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. If enacted (legal challenges have already been issued), the move will strip federal protections from about two million acres of public land—an area almost twice the size of Delaware. It will be the largest rollback of federal land protections in U.S. history.

The proclamations were not a surprise. They’re just the latest salvo in an ongoing battle over Utah’s public lands, which pits conservationists, tribal groups, and the outdoor industry against a conservative movement that views sprawling monuments as products of government overreach.

It’s the same controversy that caused the outdoor industry to move the semi-annual Outdoor Retailer trade show (and its $110 million economic impact) to Denver from its longtime home in Salt Lake City earlier this year.

If you follow industry players on social media, you’ve no doubt already seen some of the backlash. Major brands like REI, The North Face, and Black Diamond have all issued public statements opposing the rollback, and many have urged their followers to write directly to the administration.

Patagonia took it a step farther, and blacked out its entire home page to make a simple, unequivocal statement:

 

A post shared by Patagonia (@patagonia) on

Patagonia also announced that it would “fight in the courts” to preserve the monuments. Lawsuits to block the rollback have already been filed by conservation groups and Native American tribes.

 

Obama’s monument unmadE

If they are enacted, Trump’s pronouncements will have the most substantial impact on Bears Ears National Monument: a 1.3 million-acre tract in Southeastern Utah. Established by President Obama during his final days in office, that monument has been a source of considerable controversy.

Bears Ears was established largely at the behest of a coalition of Native American tribes, who hoped stricter regulations would protect their ancestral homelands from development and looting. Ranchers and Republican leaders fiercely opposed its designation, and have generally described it as a federal land grab.

Trump’s rollback will remove 85% of Bears Ears, reducing it to two islands of protected land totaling 202,000 acres. As detailed in a map produced by The Access Fund, that would leave considerable climbing, hiking, and canyoneering resources outside the monument.

The remaining land will still be under federal management, and it will still be open to public use. But it will also be open to oil, gas, and mining companies—and they are likely to take full advantage. Much of the monument’s land has already been leased for oil and gas drilling, and prospectors have identified several areas as having high potential for uranium mining.

Notably excluded from the new monument are Cedar Mesa and Valley of the Gods: two areas that are rich in cliff dwellings and rock art. Without the protections that come with the national monument designation, tribal leaders say they fear these areas will become targets for looters.

The remote sandstone spires of Valley of the Gods are prized by adventurous climbers. BLM photo.

The Anasazi cliff dwellings in Cedar Mesa are thought to be more than 1,000 years old. BLM photo.

…and Clinton’s, too

Also up for trimming is the 1.8-million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, which was established by President Clinton in 2006 to protect slot canyons, rock art, and a rich vein of Late Cretaceous fossils. More than 21 new species of dinosaurs have been discovered within the monument since its designation.

Trump’s pronouncement will shrink that monument by half, opening up a large portion of the coal-rich Kaiparowits Plateau to extractive industry. That region has long been sought after by the coal industry—plans for a large mine were scrapped when the area was designated a national monument.

In the pronouncement itself, the Trump administration acknowledged the area’s rich fossil resources and its unique geology, but wrote that the current monument exceeds the “smallest compatible” area required to protect its most unique features. Other features, like “serpentine canyons, arches, and natural bridges,” are described as being “common across the Colorado Plateau,” and thus not worthy of the protections offered by a national monument.

 

Sunset over the rocks of Grand Staircase-Escalante. BLM photo.

Canyon walls within Grand Staircase-Escalante are lined with Fremont-style rock art. BLM photo.

But it’s Not over yet

As noted by the New York Times, Donald Trump isn’t the first president to shrink an existing monument. Woodrow Wilson and FDR pulled similar moves, but theirs were never challenged in court. Thus, the question of whether a president can legally undo monument protections has never been answered.

It’s about to be. As I mentioned earlier in this piece, several organizations have filed suit to stop Trump’s rollback of federal land protections. Those suits are focused on the wording of the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the power to establish national monuments but does not expressly give them the power to revoke those protections.

These cases take time, so it will likely be months or even years before we know the final fate of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. In the interim, organizations like the Outdoor Industry Association are urging public lands advocates to put their discontent in writing, and several companies are now raising funds to convert an old bar into a “guerrilla visitors center” for Bears Ears.

Do you have questions or thoughts about the national monument rollback? Share them with us by emailing [email protected].

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about the author

Matt Minich

Matt Minich is Editorial Director for Shoulders of Giants. He has spent more than a decade writing, editing, and curating content about outdoor sports and adventure. As an adventure journalist he has climbed peaks in Patagonia, rappelled waterfalls in Colorado, B.A.S.E. jumped in Moab, and sampled fermented horse milk in Kyrgyzstan.

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