Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management
In mid-August 2017, President Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, sent a report to the White House recommending modifications to some of the 27 national monuments that he was ordered to place under review. On September 17, the Washington Post obtained a copy. In early December, the administration released further details that would sharply cut back several monuments, most particularly the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in Utah. Below, we have updated our breakdown of the status of affected monuments in the American West.
Originally published in July 2017. | Status updates follow below.
President Barack Obama’s designation of a 1.3 million acre national monument at Bears Ears in southeastern Utah a year ago was a breathtaking affirmation of the value of the landscape, its archaeological resources and its connection to Native American history, memories and beliefs.
Some Utahns and all their congressional delegation opposed the the monument as a federal land grab. In a breathtaking reversal of the actions of Obama and President Clinton, President Trump just eliminated the protected status from 85 percent of the Bears Ears Monument and about half of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which was created in 1996.
The result of this sweeping back-and-forth is ending in the federal courts, which can now rule, for the first time, on the 111-year-old Antiquities Act — the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican president and avid hunter who embodied conservation ideals.
The most notable element of the legal fight is the rise of a new player — the outdoor recreation industry, led by Patagonia — as a champion of conservation. It has joined five Native nations, land-conservation groups and archaeologists in one of the lawsuits arguing that nowhere in the Antiquities Act is a president granted the power to undo his predecessors’ monument decisions.
Two legal scholars, Todd Graziano and John Yoo, challenged that view in a formal paper and a newspaper op-ed, arguing “the authority to execute a discretionary power includes the authority to reverse it. No President (nor any Congress or Supreme Court) can permanently bind his or her successors in their exercise of the executive power.”
But, in the case of the Grand-Staircase Escalante Monument, the presidential designation was later confirmed in a law authorizing a 1998 land swap, praised five years ago by Michael O. Leavitt, former Utah governor and George W. Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator. This swap could be a significant legal obstacle to the Trump administration’s efforts to overcome the legal challenges to the reduction in that monument. In the case of the Bears Ears Monument, the legal fight may focus on the difference between adjusting monument boundaries — which other presidents have done — and, essentially, blowing the monument up, leaving only two shards of the original protected area in place.
In late December 2016, President Obama set aside 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah as the Bears Ears National Monument, angering state officials and the county officials in San Juan County, in Utah’s southeast corner. The designation of the land, which includes rich and vulnerable examples of buildings and rock art from prehistoric Native American cultures, prompted many articles pro and con, including some from local residents, which we published in the ‘…& the West’ blog.
In March, the Native American members of the new commission advising the Bears Ears’ management wrote Mr. Zinke a letter reiterating the monument’s value to them. But the land is also important to those who might graze cattle, mine uranium or drill for oil and natural gas. Since 2013, the Interior Department has rebuffed attempts to lease more than 100,000 drillable acres — all of it in or near the monument. Mining of “yellowcake” uranium in the area continues.
133,000 acres (2017)
The original monument was designed to protect an area of biological diversity. In 2011, scientists urged expansion.
This did not sit well with the timber industry; this year’s expansion sent it, and the Oregon counties that depend on timber revenues, to court. They claim that the prohibitions against timber harvest fly in the face of a 1937 law encouraging timber harvesting to provide revenue for the rural counties that cannot get tax revenue from federal lands. Ranchers are worried that grazing will be restricted; some have sold their grazing permits to environmental groups in anticipation of that outcome.
The reasoning behind establishing this monument echoes that of several other southwestern monuments: protection of rock art, Native American resources, wildlife, and sweeping vistas. But Gold Butte’s land near Las Vegas has a special resonance — it was here in 2014 that the rancher Cliven Bundy’s defiance of federal rules and his refusal to pay fees for cattle grazing led to an armed standoff between the Bureau of Land Management’s enforcement apparatus and the rancher, his family, and assorted armed militiamen. The Bundys had defied the federal government for years and his actions in Nevada, like his son’s in Oregon, won fierce support among antigovernment activists. The monument will still allow grazing — supervised and paid for — but among the local objections, a small town argues that the monument interferes with a local water district’s ability to get an assured supply. The Interior Department’s site for the monument says that visitors can “hike to rock art sites, drive … to the area’s namesake mining ghost town, hunt desert bighorn sheep, or tour the area’s peaks and canyons on horseback.”
Critics, mostly in Utah, had objected to the 1996 declaration of the monument for many reasons, including a strong assertion of state sovereignty over its lands. But the desire to open the Kaiparowits Plateau’s coal seams, containing an estimated 30 billion tons of mineable coal, is also a powerful motive. More than 40 years ago, a plan to build a 3,000-megawatt coal-fired electric generating plant on the plateau was abandoned by three utilities — two in southern California, one in Arizona. Getting the coal to market from the remote plateau has always been a stumbling block to commercial development.
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Long advocated by former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, the monument is roughly the size of Rhode Island, sits north of Las Vegas and takes in everything from ancient rock art to arid angular mountains to “City” a collection of abstract sculptures that the artist Michael Heizer took four decades to assemble; it is the size of the national mall in Washington. The anger of local opponents, who felt cut out of the decision and restricted in their future economic development, was voiced by Republican Senator Dean Heller before the monument’s designation. He told E&E News: “an inclusive approach where local parties affected by the designation have a seat at the table to voice their opinion.” He added,”These are the stakeholders most affected by any federal action on this matter.”
Famartin via Wikimedia Commons
The monument, which abuts Sequoia National Park, contains 33 groves of redwoods, the towering trees that got the attention of the world when settlers first saw them in the 19th century. The groves, with names like Indian Basin, Burro Creek, Starvation Complex and Upper Tule, are now surrounded by an undergrowth of smaller trees, millions of which have died thanks to drought and beetle infestations. Some members of the supervisors’ boards in Kern and Tulare Counties want the freedom to allow logging in these areas, though it is not clear who could find profit in the beetle-gnawed trees. And recently, the governing boards in those two counties came to different decisions on whether to send letters opposing the monument Local citizens also held rallies supporting it.
Discussions about the future of this monument almost always include the word “Cadiz,” for two reasons. First, it is the name given to a spectacular group of sand dunes at the at the heart of the monument, which surrounds historic Route 66. Second, it is the name of a company, Cadiz Inc., that has proposed a water pumping, storage and delivery project near the dunes. The project envisions a 43-mile-long pipeline from a groundwater pumping station to the Colorado River aqueduct. From there, the water could flow to customers in southern California. The Cadiz project was supported in March by the local Republican congressman, Paul Cook. In June, he supported cutting 500,000 acres surrounding the pipeline route from the monument.
372 million acres (2016)
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Those interested in reading more about Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument and how the BLM isn’t waiting for the courts to rule on monument boundaries to start planning should visit: https://www.hcn.org/articles/blm-speeds-ahead-on-grand-staircase-escalante-plans High Country News has covered the many aspects of these monument reductions. See http://hcn.org/topics/monuments for our most recent coverage
Staff and Contributors
Syler Peralta-Ramos is a member of the Stanford class of 2020. He has lived in Wilson, Wyoming his whole life and developed a keen interest in nature photography and conservation from a young age, inspired by the multitude of photographers that congregate in the Teton region as well as his parents who also share a love for photography.
‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.
Bruce E. Cain