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6 big questions: What’s happening with Bears Ears and other national monuments?

Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

Bears Ears National Monument, UT

Mason Cummings, TWS

Spotlight on Biden promise to restore protections

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is set to travel to Utah soon. There, she will meet with Tribal leaders, lawmakers and others to inform her recommendations on whether and how to restore protections for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Reversing ex-President Trump’s rollbacks to those and other public lands and waters was a big Biden campaign promise, and we’ll be watching closely to ensure the president makes good on that pledge. 

Below, we take a shot at answering some frequently asked questions about Bears Ears, national monuments and what happens next. 

  1. Remind me: What's up with Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante? 
  2. Why was Trump allowed to gut Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante? 
  3. What happened to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante after Trump’s proclamation?
  4. How did the monuments avert disaster?
  5. What can be done to restore or expand Bears Ears and other monuments? 
  6. Who wants these monuments restored?

Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

Bears Ears National Monument, UT

Mason Cummings, TWS

Let’s take it from the top. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was designated in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, protecting a dramatic red-rock landscape in southern Utah that has yielded numerous significant fossils of dinosaurs and other ancient life. Bears Ears National Monument, to the east, was established in 2016 by President Barack Obama to preserve thousands of Indigenous cultural and archaeological sites. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, an alliance of five sovereign Tribal nations with ties to Bears Ears (the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni), was the driving force behind that monument designation—a momentous and perhaps unprecedented instance of Tribal interests joining forces to propose national monument protection.  

In 2017, spurred by development potential for fossil fuels and other energyPresident Donald Trump drastically reduced the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante (by roughly 85 percent and half, respectively), the single largest rollback of public lands protections in history. These changes exposed archaeological and paleontological sites to vandalism and other harm and opened the door to drilling and mining claims. Later, the Trump administration put out management plans for how the scant remnants of these monuments should be managed; unsurprisingly, those plans left important cultural sites and wildlife habitat vulnerable to harm as well. 

Ever since, Tribal leaders, scientists, local businesses, conservation groups have been fighting the Trump rollbacks, including in court (we were the lead litigants in a lawsuit challenging reductions to Grand Staircase-Escalante).  

Trump also rolled back protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, off the coast of New England. That move, ostensibly to benefit commercial fishing, gutted protections for an important stretch of the Atlantic Ocean that plays host to varied (often rare) marine life.

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Map showing original extent of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments and Trump reductions

Map showing original extent of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments and revised protections after Trump's rollbacks

TWS

Short answer: he shouldn’t have been! The Antiquities Act of 1906, the law that gives presidents the authority to protect sensitive cultural sites and wild habitats as national monuments, doesn’t include any provision for un-doing a previous president’s monument. But Trump blundered ahead anyway, operating under the legally questionable premise that “the power to create comes hand in hand with the power to destroy,” in the words of Steve Bloch, legal director for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. We and many others argued that his rollbacks were unlawful, and we’ve been fighting it out in court to slam the brakes on the whole process.  

Aside from on-the-ground damage, lawyers and legal scholars have argued, Trump’s unlawful attacks set a dangerous precedent. If his monument rollbacks were to succeed, what’s to stop future presidents from completely redrawing the map and removing protections for other national monuments? And more broadly, what does it portend about other attempts to gut scientifically sound rules and environmental safeguards?

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Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, UT

Mason Cummings, TWS

There were a lot of nightmare scenarios on the horizon when Trump first announced the monument cuts: everything from all-terrain vehicles roaring through sensitive archaeological sites to a uranium mine setting up shop not too far from Bears Ears. 

So far, a couple of small mineral extraction operations have started up, one in each landscape. Damage from those could hang around for a long time. But for the most part, large-scale development destruction in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante has been held at bay. Market conditions made mining and drilling in the formerly protected areas less attractive to energy companies, among other factors.  

The rush of visitors enabled by Trump management plans threatens to overwhelm managers tasked with protecting cultural and natural resources

The Trump management plans, meanwhile, allow increased potential for damage from visitation to the monument areas. The rush of visitors threatens to overwhelm managers tasked with protecting cultural and natural resources. That’s a big ongoing concern. In the five years before President Obama protected Bears Ears, there were dozens of cases of looting, vandalism or "disturbance of human remains" in the area. In Grand Staircase-Escalante, damage to fossils is a threat, including from off-road vehicles. 

One little-mentioned consequence of the Trump cuts: they diverted federal funding from important projects on the ground. For example, paleontologists have testified to the scientific importance of fossil finds in Grand Staircase-Escalante and pointed out that monument status enabled their work (a great deal of funding that led to major fossil finds in Grand Staircase-Escalante came through the monument, including the resources to airlift a rare, nearly complete tyrannosaur skeleton out of a now de-designated monument area in 2017). Trump’s contraction of monument boundaries interfered with key research. 

Right now, groups including the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and Grand Staircase Escalante Partners are focused on restoring protections as soon as possible—before any more threats are introduced.

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Reddish rock formations in immediate foreground and canyons and buttes in background, with sunrise behind them

Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

Mason Cummings, TWS

Well, because of you (in part, anyway).  

The public never really supported Trump’s rollback agenda. In fact, when then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke solicited input on how he should implement Trump’s executive order to “review” various monuments, roughly 99% of the millions of public commenters who weighed in said they opposed the whole process. Since Trump actually made the rollbacks, similarly, public opposition has been fierce. It was made clear to energy producers and others with an interest in developing these landscapes that they would be met with strong opposition if they moved forward. Additionally, it ended up not being economical to drill and mine in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante (at least so far).  

Another major factor: Trump became a one-term president. Four additional years in the White House would have meant more time for his administration to solidify management changes and push past the objections of Tribal groups and others.  

Again, the bottom line is that we need to restore protections as soon as possible. A full-on “disaster” hasn’t happened yet, but it certainly still could if we don’t take action now.

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Ancient Puebloan ruins in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

Ancient Puebloan ruins in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

Mason Cummings, TWS

President Biden initiated a review of the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante almost immediately after being inaugurated. Under the authority of the Antiquities Act (see above), he is empowered to restore or expand protections to those monuments, following the example of almost every past president, Republicans and Democrats alike.  

The first step is Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s trip to Utah. There, the Interior Department has promised that she’ll meet with “stakeholders, tribes and elected leaders” to inform her recommendations to the president. After that, we plan to pressure the White House to make things right by restoring protections to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante (and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts). In the case of Bears Ears, we’ll further call on the Biden administration to heed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition’s request to expand and strengthen protections for the boundaries originally proposed by the Tribes back in 2015. 

The Biden campaign also made a general promise to respect the role of Tribes in caring for and managing public lands that are culturally important to them. A good place to start would be following the lead of Tribes on Bears Ears.

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Group of people protesting with banner reading "Utahns for National Monuments"

Protest in Salt Lake City in December 2017

KristineL761, Flickr

From the very beginning of Trump’s campaign against Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, he and his administration tried to paint it as a principled stand of behalf of the people—specifically, local Utahns who didn’t want the feds in their backyard (to quote Trump from 2017, protecting monuments “give[s] enormous power to faraway bureaucrats at the expense of the people who actually live here, work here, and make this place their home"). But at best, that’s a grotesque distortion of the facts on the ground.

First, take the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. This alliance of five sovereign tribal nations with ties to Bears Ears was the driving force behind the monument designation in the first place. Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the coalition, has likened the landscape to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in its cultural and religious importance.

There has been strong local support for protecting Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante

Leaders from those tribes then led the way in opposing Trump’s land grab, including a lawsuit filed by the Native American Rights Fund on behalf of the Hopi Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni. Since Biden was elected, the coalition has already stated its eagerness to work toward restoring Bears Ears. There is no charitable way to interpret Trump and other lawmakers’ habit of ignoring or downplaying these Tribal voices (don’t Indigenous communities count as communities?). Bottom line: there is—and has always been—a robust contingent of Tribal communities in favor of protecting Bears Ears.

But even if you discount the Inter-Tribal Coalition, there has been strong local support for protecting (and re-protecting) Bears Ears. Shortly after Biden was elected, commissioners from Grand County and San Juan County (where Bears Ears is located) along with the Utah Navajo Commission asked Biden to restore Bears Ears. Similar statements of support have come from the Moab City Council, the Bluff Town Council and the towns of Blanding and Monticello.

In the case of Grand Staircase-Escalante, the Escalante Boulder Chamber of Commerce strongly supported leaving monument protections as-is in the lead up to Zinke and Trump’s cuts. Leaders specifically pointed to the monument’s robust contributions to the local tourism industry, and since then, local businesses have been among the vocal opponents of reduced protections.

That’s not to mention broader sentiment in the state. While a number of deeply conservative counties in Utah do oppose monument protection for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, it is plainly misleading to paint Trump’s rollbacks as a proxy victory for the people of Utah; in fact, in the survey of public comments mentioned above, 90.9% of Utahns opposed the monument review process. And in a 2021 poll, 74% of Utah voters said they support restoring monument protections.

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