Critics outraged over removing nearly 2 million acres from protection
A big bite has been taken out of the Bears Ears, and Grand-Staircase Escalante just got a lot less grand. As expected, President Trump announced huge cuts to the two southern Utah national monuments during a trip to Salt Lake on Monday.
And no sooner had he announced the cuts – whittling the 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears to a scant 201,876 acres and Grand Staircase in half, to just over 1 million acres – critics began hitting back.
On the heels of the proclamation, which he signed in front of an applauding Republican delegation, environmental and tribal groups vowed to sue. Outside the Capitol, an estimated 3,000 gathered to protest.
Bears Ears and Grand Staircase were among 27 monuments that Trump ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review this year. Bears Ears was created last year by President Barack Obama. Grand Staircase was designated in 1996 by Bill Clinton.
Topping the list of those objectors was Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. “(The) announcement ... disregards the wishes of a tribal coalition and ignores the input of Western leaders and businesses to initiate the single largest removal of protection for public lands in our nation’s history,” Bennet said.
The Navajo Nation, whose tribal lands border Bears Ears to the south, also released a statement Monday saying it had no choice but to take legal action.
“The Navajo Nation has made repeated requests to meet with President Trump on this issue. The Bears Ears Monument is of critical importance, not only to the Navajo Nation but to many tribes in the region,” Navajo President Russell Begaye said in a statement. “The decision to reduce the size of the monument is being made with no tribal consultation.”
Meanwhile, Denver-based conservation advocacy group Center for Western Priorities blasted Zinke for his erroneous and “shoddy” report, which was recently leaked. “Secretary Zinke ... just wants to open up national monuments to more drilling, mining and logging,” Executive Director Jennifer Rokala said in a statement. “Zinke’s report is riddled with factual errors, along with highly misleading claims that omit relevant facts.”
Among those are the report’s claim that the Grand Staircase has resulted in a decrease of cattle runs due to restrictions on grazing. However, the CWP points out that, according to the Bureau of Land Management, over-all grazing levels have remained steady. When the monument was designated in 1996, there were 77,400 active “animal unit months,” or AUMs. As of July 2015, there were 76,957– less than 1 percent difference.
The Center also refuted the report’s repeated claim to want to protect lands for fishing and hunting. In reality, both monuments’ proclamations recognized the State of Utah’s jurisdiction over management of fishing and hunting.
The Center also questioned Trump’s actions in the first place, arguing that under the Antiquities Act, the power to modify a monument falls not with the president, but Congress. “The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 confirmed the limit of the President’s authority, and no president has attempted to unilaterally modify a national monument in the 41 years since FLPMA became law,” Rokala said.
Hundreds of businesses also weighed in against the move, including a coalition of nearly 200 Colorado businesses that signed a petition to Gov. Hickenlooper and congressional members urging action.
“It is critical that our Colorado congressional delegation stands up to efforts to undermine public lands,” Salida Mayor and owner of Wood’s High Mountain Distillery, P.T. Wood, said. “We have seen the benefits of permanently protecting Browns Canyon National Monument here in the Arkansas
Valley, not only for our businesses, but in also knowing that this treasure will be preserved for future generations.”
Even clothing giant Patagonia got in on the action, pointing out that more than 98 percent of the record-breaking 2.7 million public comments received during the Interior’s comment period expressed support for maintaining or expanding monuments.
Patagonia also referred to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2017 Report that found outdoor recreation contributes 7.6 million jobs and $887 billion annually, far outpacing the jobs and spending generated by oil and gas. The company also cited Wilderness Society data that 90 percent of U.S. public lands are open to oil and gas leasing and development while only 10 percent are protected for recreation, conservation and wildlife.
For its part, the Interior released a statement Tuesday. “America has spoken and public land belongs to the people,” Zinke said. “As I visited the monuments across this country, I met with Americans on all sides of the issue – from ranchers to conservationists to tribal leaders – and found that we agree on wanting to protect our heritage while still allowing public access to public land.”
He also disputed that excluded federal lands will be sold or transferred to states, a concern raised by some. “The Secretary adamantly opposes the wholesale sale or transfer of public lands. ... the land would remain federally owned and would be managed by the appropriate federal land management agency,” Zinke said.
As far as allegations that Zinke failed to consult area tribes, he calls this claim “patently false,” saying he met with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in Salt Lake City in May for “just under two hours.” He also met with tribal representatives during his four-day survey of the Utah monuments and held tribal listening sessions across the country.
Determining if anything Zinke heard sunk in will remain up to the courts.