The battle continues...
Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in the thick of it

The battle continues...

Bears Ears National Monument, pictured here, along with Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, have been the focal point of fierce public land battles in recent years./?Photo by Jonathan Thompson

Jonathan Thompson - 12/08/2022

THE NEWS: The Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni – along with several conservation groups – moved to intervene in two lawsuits seeking to remove protections from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in southern Utah. Mining and ranching interests, a motorized recreation advocacy group, two counties and the state of Utah filed the suits against the Biden administration in August. The tribal nations are seeking to defend Biden’s restoration of the national monuments’ original boundaries, which had been drastically diminished during the Trump-era.

THE CONTEXT: Sometimes it seems like Utah’s political leaders just don’t get it. I mean, the state’s greatest assets (in more ways than one) are the cultural and natural landscapes found in Canyon Country – the homeland of several tribal nations.

Most of those lands are designated public lands (which is to say, they were stolen from Indigenous peoples, put into the public domain and were not homesteaded or “claimed” by settlers or miners, leaving them under federal management). And over the years, various presidents have added layers of protection to portions of that land by wielding the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate national monuments, including: Arches (1929); Zion (1909); Capitol Reef (1937); Hovenweep (1923); Canyonlands (1964); Bears Ears (2016); and Grand Staircase-Escalante (1996). Many of these later became national parks through acts of Congress.

Now, thanks in large part to aggressive marketing by the state of Utah, these national parks and monuments, along with the public lands surrounding them, draw millions of visitors each year and fuel the economies of many a southeastern Utah community.

So it just seems bizarre that the state and some of those same communities would try not only to remove national monument protections from those landscapes, but also to eviscerate the Antiquities Act altogether, simply because they feel like the monuments are too large. They even rely on that worn-out, coastal trope of comparing the monuments’ sizes to East Coast states. As though that means anything. Really, Utah?

And what happens when you protect that much public land? According to the lawsuit:

“While they may come from diverse backgrounds, every plaintiff faces the common prospect of President Biden’s proclamations destroying their livelihoods and upending their lives. The Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears Monuments have hurt local business, hollowed small towns, and separated Utahns from their family histories and religious traditions.”

OK, that is sad. But it’s also false. The plaintiffs’ declarations are filled with tales of woe about how worried they are about the potential impacts the national monuments may have on ranching or off-road-vehicle access or, well, religious traditions, whatever that means. Some say they have experienced them, but there are virtually no facts to back them up.

One motorized recreation advocate, for example, declared in regards to Bears Ears:

“Roads and trails are being closed, denying access. Favorite camping spots are being closed. Grazing permits are in jeopardy. Access to Elk Ridge, one of the community’s favorite destinations, seems likely to be closed or diminished.”

Actually, none of this has happened – the monument’s management plan is still being formulated. Camp sites have not been closed as a result of the national monument designation. The monument proclamation grandfathers in existing grazing leases and leaves open the possibility of new ones, so no jeopardy there. And there is simply no basis for the absurd notion that monument managers would shut off access to Elk Ridge.

Another plaintiff claims that Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has destroyed local communities by making ranching untenable. But the fact is, the monument has had very little effect on grazing, aside from steering it away from a few sensitive riparian areas. And, the populations of Kane and Garfield counties have grown steadily and substantially over the past three decades, for better or worse. Yes, there are costs to transitioning from extractive and agricultural economies to amenity, tourism and recreation-based economies. But to blame the transition on (or credit it to) the monument designations just doesn’t work.

Furthermore, Bears Ears’ boundaries, especially, were drawn in such a way as to leave out the most viable oil and gas and uranium mining areas. Harts Point was left out, for example, as was Wingate Mesa south of White Canyon. And there are still millions of acres of federally managed land in southeastern Utah that don’t have special protections and where just about anyone can stake a 20-acre mining claim for a couple hundred bucks.

The tribal nations, by contrast, argue that the national monuments should be retained, writing in their motion to intervene:

“For thousands of years, the tribal nations living in the southwest, including intervening Tribes, have cherished the Bears Ears National Monument region and held it as a sacred place. To this day, the Tribes use the region for many purposes: collecting plants, minerals, and waters for religious and medicinal purposes; hunting, fishing, and gathering; conducting ceremonies; and making offerings at archaeological sites. Indeed, some ceremonies use items that can only be harvested from Bears Ears. Bears Ears has long been and remains a home to the Tribes. Because of this importance, in 2015, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition was formed, which includes the Tribes here. The Coalition advocated for the Bears Ears region and the thousands of objects of unique historical, cultural, spiritual, and scientific importance therein to become a National Monument.”

The national monument has to be the size of some East Coast state and should be even larger, to adequately protect the “antiquities” contained therein. They are not discreet sites placed upon the landscape, but cultural threads of community woven into the landscape. If you tried to simply draw a line around each cultural site individually, as the plaintiffs seem to suggest, the end result would be the same, since there are literally hundreds of thousands of such sites, which include villages, granaries, kilns, fields, shrines, roads and plazas. So instead of just one monument covering a million acres, you’d have a million monuments covering a million acres (all theoretical, of course).

The case is likely to drag on for months or even years. In the meantime, the Tribal Coalition and federal land managers will continue working on the management plans.

The Land Desk is a newsletter from Jonathan P. Thompson, longtime journalist and author of River of Lost Souls, Behind the Slickrock Curtain and the newly released Sagebrush Empire. To subscribe, go to: