On December 4, President Donald Trump signed two proclamations to shrink Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments by more than half of their current acreage. Changes to other monuments are expected to come, and a handful of lawsuits have been filed in response to Trump’s action since December 4.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition–consisting of the Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain and Zuni tribes–were among the first to file their suit hours after the president’s announcement. The cases carry heavy implications for tribal sovereignty and the sanctity of the Antiquities Act, which has never been tested so heavily since it was ratified by Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Erik Murdock, policy director for the Access Fund, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the access and protection of climbing areas, anticipates it will be a protracted fight that may go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Trump Administration and several Utah state legislators say the case is about federal overreach and state’s rights. The outdoor industry, environmentalists and the majority of Native American governments say it is about environmental protection and Native American rights.
A page of the Inter-Tribal Coalition Coalition’s website reads, “President Trump’s action to revoke and replace the Bears Ears National Monument is not only an attack on the five sovereign nations with deep ties to the Bears Ears region, it is a complete violation of the separation of powers enshrined in our Constitution. No president has ever revoked and replaced a national monument before because it is not legal to do so.”
“I don’t think it is controversial, actually. I think it’s so sensible,” Trump said in a speech in Salt Lake City, Utah, before signing the proclamations in front of an invite-only crowd of cheering supporters. “These abuses of the Antiquities Act have not just threatened your local economies; they’ve threatened your very way of life. They’ve threatened your hearts.
“Our precious national treasures must be protected. And they, from now on, will be protected. Under my administration, we will advance that protection through a truly representative process, one that listens to the local communities that knows the land the best and that cherishes the land the most….
“Together we will usher in a bright new future of wonder and wealth, liberty and law, and patriotism and pride all across this great land.”
Trump’s proclamations slash the 1.9-million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, which was established in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, to three monuments totaling 1.004 million acres–Grand Staircase (209,993 acres), Kaiparowits (551,034 acres) and Escalante Canyons (242,836 acres). The 1.35-million acre Bears Ears Monument, designated by Barack Obama less than a year ago on December 28, 2016, will shrink to a total of 201,876 acres split between two separate monuments named Shash Jaa (129,980 acres) and Indian Creek (71,896 acres).
The “Indian Creek” monument, however, excludes some of the finest climbing areas in the region, including the Cliffs of Insanity and The Wall, as well as lesser-known areas such as Harts Draw, Lockhart Basin and Valley of the Gods (see map). In total, 40 percent of the crags within the former Bears Ears Monument will not be included in the new monuments, according to the Access Fund, which teamed with the Inter-Tribal Coalition to see the original Bears Ears Monument established under the Obama administration less than a year ago.
The climbing areas no longer included in one of the new monuments will remain under federal oversight and will still be open to the public. But the character of places removed from the former monument remains at risk, as federal land management agencies such as the BLM have been generally directed to prioritize energy development over other uses such as recreation. When the Grand Canyon was originally designated as a national monument by Roosevelt in 1908 (it became a national park in 1919), ranchers in particular complained that it was too large, but there is little argument today that the scale of the park is what makes it special. As for the large size of the former Bears Ears Monument: “Access Fund believes 1.35 million acres is an appropriate size,” Murdock said. “If you start cutting it to pieces you lose that value. These vast landscapes are becoming more and more rare. Like the Grand Canyon, the vastness is the feature.”
There are also a great number of archaeological sites that are no longer included in the new monuments–some of them predate the arrival of Europeans in North America and represent thousands of years of cultural heritage to the surrounding Native American tribes.
The Access Fund joined the Native American group Utah Dine Bikeyah, Friends of Cedar Mesa, Patagonia and five other organizations in a class-action lawsuit that was filed on Dec. 6. The other class-action suit was filed by a group of 10 environmental organizations, including The Wilderness Society, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club.
“Bears Ears was the first National Monument proclamation to specifically acknowledge rock climbing as an appropriate and valued recreation activity,” Access Fund Executive Director Brady Robinson said in a press release. “[The former monument] was a huge win for the climbing community, as the Bears Ears region is home to a substantial amount of world-class climbing. We cannot afford to lose that acknowledgement or allow the climbing experience to be compromised.”
“This is a precedent-setting moment,” Robinson said. “This fight is about more than just protecting the incredible climbing at Bears Ears. Nearly 60 percent of climbing areas are on federal public lands, and this proclamation threatens the Antiquities Act and the very foundation of our public lands system. Bears Ears is a critical battle in the greater fight for America’s public lands.”
Len Necefer is a member of the Navajo Nation who holds a PhD in engineering and public policy, and is also the founder of Natives Outdoors. He posted a reaction to Trump’s proclamations in a Facebook post:
…The Bears Ears National Monument was established as a result of a multi-decade effort by the five tribes of the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition. These tribes worked to collectively exert their sovereignty as native nations in an effort to protect the numerous cultural and ecological resources of their ancestral homes. The Coalition was driven by an understanding that the value of these ancestral resources far outweigh the value that could come from extraction of mineral resources…. [The Bears Ears Monument] represents a monumental step in recognizing the intrinsic capability and sovereignty of native nations. It also sets a precedent for advancing even more effective and sustainable public lands management. Sovereign tribal nations have a proven track record of honoring culture and history over money and profit; doing so is critical to protecting the integrity of public lands….
The administration’s decision to reduce national monuments is an opportunity for organizing. This is a critical moment for varied and diverse sets of user groups to come together in protecting public lands, tribal sovereignty, and our shared opportunity to have more sustainable economies. As the opposition to the Bears Ears reduction clearly indicates, this has already begun to happen. With advancements toward inclusivity in the politics of the outdoor industry, the administration has picked a losing battle that will only serve to strengthen public support for public lands and the many tribes who call these places home.
[Stay tuned for a forthcoming opinion feature by Alpinist Digital Editor Derek Franz, who has followed the Bears Ears controversy all the way to Washington, D.C., since the monument was designated 11 months ago. Previous coverage can be found on Alpinist.com that includes Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s review of the national monuments that was ordered by Trump last April, and a more comprehensive look at various opinions on the issue.–Ed.]