President Trump shrinks Bears Ears, Grand Staircase Escalante monuments, ranchers and others relieved
Zeb Dalton’s desk holds a 12-inch stack of manuals and books brimming with regulations for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) pastures his cattle graze. “And that is just for our local district, it’s not the BLM as a whole,” he said.
Dalton’s point is this: Even though President Trump reduced the size of the Bears Ears Monument, he did not remove it from federal management.
Dec. 4, President Trump, in typical Trump fashion, stunned America by announcing that he was, by Executive Order, re-drawing the borders of the monument to make it smaller. About 85 percent smaller, in fact – reducing it from the 1.35 million acres designated by President Obama in January of 2016 to two monuments totaling just a hair over 200,000 acres. The southern monument, which includes the actual Bears Ears formations is named Shaash Jaa, while the northern monument is the Indian Creek Monument.
Trump also shrunk next door Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument to about half its original 1.7 million acres. The Escalante Monument was put in place by President Clinton.
“Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington,” Trump said, speaking at Utah’s State Capitol beneath a painting of Mormon pioneers. “And guess what? They’re wrong.”
“Together,” he continued, talking about the shrinking of the monuments “we will usher in a bright new future of wonder and wealth.”
It’s still federal land
Dalton’s cattle graze both BLM and U.S. Forest Service in what was the Bears Ears Monument in southeastern Utah, up against New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. While some of the land is no longer under “monument” designation, it remains federal land and will continue to be managed by the overseeing agency – BLM, U.S. Forest Service or National Park Service.
Some media sources have reported that the area will now be “privatized” or that oil companies will soon begin digging wells. But the land itself remains under federal management, just as it has been for decades. In fact, the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the authority to create monuments, specifies that they all monument designations be done on federal land.
Dalton appreciates Trump’s announcement and hopes the area can continue to be available for multiple use.
“San Juan County is at least 92 percent federal land,” said Dalton of the monument’s home county. Of the 700,000 acres his cattle graze, almost half were already being managed as wilderness, one of the most restrictive management strategies for federal lands. The wilderness designation doesn’t change with the monument shrinkage. “Some of this land has as many as 12 layers of protection,” he said, referring to “roadless,” “wilderness,” and other federal designations meant to restrict use and preserve the landscape.
“A lot of environmental groups put out narrative that it wasn’t protected and that we needed to protect it. That wasn’t true,” he said. For example, in the wilderness and wilderness study areas, no motorized vehicles were allowed, even before Obama’s monument designation, he explained. This will not change, even though some of the wilderness now lies outside of the boundaries of the monument.
Dalton’s cattle graze BLM permits in the summer and U.S. Forest Service land in the winter months. Although most of his grazing allotments are now outside the monument borders, he trails them between the Bears Ears to get from one allotment to the other. He fears his access, even on the remaining monument, will one day be restricted.
Depending on which pastures his cattle are grazing at the time, his trail from summer to winter range or back again can be up to 100 miles.
Because the federal agencies have had just short of a year draft new plans under President Obama’s designation, management within the Bears Ears Monument had so far not been much different, Dalton said.
“They never really got any bylaws finalized. The regulations that were coming never got put into place,” he said, and explained that the biggest change he had seen in the last year was an increase in visitors by about three-fold.
Visitors will have the same rights and abilities to enjoy the federal land, even without the monument designation.
Some conservatives believe the Antiquities Act has been abused by several presidents. The Act, which gives presidents the authority to create national monuments, says the limits of the monuments shall “in all cases be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
Local support for reducing monuments
Senator Orrin Hatch and Representatives John Curtis and Chris Stewart, all Republicans, supported Trump’s move, as did San Juan county commissioner Rebecca Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation and a Democrat.
“Thank you for not being a typical politician and passing us over. Thank you for caring about San Juan County. We may be only 15,000 strong, but we matter. We appreciate you being willing to take the backlash from the special interest groups as you stand for the people and the economy of San Juan County,” she said in a public address.
“Brothers and sisters, I stand here before you as a Native American woman, the first elected woman in San Juan County. So here, I’m here today to tell you that my constituents do not want another monument in San Juan County because it is just another federal overreach with empty promises,” she said.
Bloomberg reported that five lawsuits were quickly filed in response to Trump’s actions. One president can’t “trump” another’s actions when it comes to monuments, they say.
The Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Zuni Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe consider much of Bears Ears to be religiously and historically valuable, though the land is owned by the federal government, said The Hill.
Local rancher Gail Johnson said the sentiment of the local Native Americans is generally supportive of the monument shrinking, as evidenced by county commissioner Benally’s comments.
While five tribes are suing over the action, only two tribes reside in the county, the White Mesa Utes and the Navajo, she said. “But no one will listen to our local Native Americans unless they are in favor of what Obama did.”
According to the A.P., Earthjustice, The Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and several more environmental groups challenged the reduction of the Escalante monument, saying the president’s action was “unlawful” and it “exceeds his authority under the U.S. Constitution and the Antiquities Act.”
No stranger to controversy, apparel maker Patagonia also jumped in the fight, filing suit to challenge President Trump’s authority to do what he did.
Elko, Nevada attorney Travis Gerber said he can’t guess how the courts will rule on the lawsuits.
“One principle I know, under the Antiquities Act, the declaration must be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management,” he said.
“Our position is that if designating 1.3 million acres, which is similar in size to the whole state of Delaware, is considered the ‘smallest area compatible,’ there could be no limit on the federal government’s power to declare all federal land as a monument.”
Similar designations would not be welcome or acceptable in the east, Gerber believes, and said that people who reside outside of federal lands states don’t understand the unintended consequences of such actions, which negatively affect the economies of local communities. Encouraging prosperity with economic drivers such as ranching and logging actually encourages positive land management, he said, pointing out that America is cleaner and “better managed” than developing countries. “When people grow more wealthy, they reinvest back into the environment.”
“The philosophy behind these designations assumes that it will benefit the land but actually the results are the opposite. We see catastrophic wildfire and forest fire on federal lands in much more frequency than private lands,” said Gerber.
Local ranchers Sandy and Gail Johnson, whose private property as well as their state and federal grazing land had been included within the confines of the Bears Ears Monument, are happy to now find themselves outside of the monument borders.
“It helped everyone out,” Sandy said of the president’s announcement.
Johnson feared that the monument would take the “natural course” of other area monuments and eventually be turned into a national park, which would likely completely eliminate livestock grazing.
Johnson said that some smaller ranchers within the Escalante monument were forced to cut their grazing numbers to the point that their ranches weren’t sustainable, and they eventually sold out to bigger outfits. He hopes that with Trump’s action, management in that region will return to a multiple-use vision, so that ranchers can graze the appropriate number of cattle on their allotments.
Although well-intentioned, the monument designation did nothing to protect resources including Native American artifacts, Dalton said. And illegal activity is not common.
“Unfortunately if someone is going to break the law, they are going to break the law whether it is a monument or not. Hypothetically, if I went out and dug up an Indian artifact, it wouldn’t matter if I was inside the monument or outside, the laws that I would be prosecuted under would be exactly the same. They want the monument to protect land from looting and such but the laws on the land are the same whether it is in the monument or not.”