Interior secretary recommends scaling down Bears Ears National Monument

Living on Earth
Bears Ears National Monument

Bears Ears was granted national monument status in 2016 and encompasses 1.3 million acres of land in southern Utah.

Bureau of Land Management

The Trump administration has fired another shot in the long-smoldering Sagebrush Rebellion: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has issued a preliminary recommendation to shrink Bears Ears National Monument, which spans over 1.3 million acres. 

No one quite knows how this will play out. The Antiquities Act allows presidents to create national monuments but has no mechanism for presidents to reduce or undo them.

Since the 1970s, right-wing activists and lawmakers in the Western states have called for more state and local control of the vast federal acreage in the region, seeking more access for mining, drilling and cattle grazing.

When President Donald Trump came into office, he ordered a review of all national monuments decreed since 1996, with priority given to Bears Ears. President Barack Obama created Bears Ears at the end of his term in response to concerns of Native Americans, who have deep spiritual and cultural ties to the area.

Tracy Coppola, a senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice, says few people outside the region understand the sacred value of the land for the Native populations.

“It has a remarkable amount of archaeological and cultural sites — over 100,000 Native American treasures, ancient cliff dwellings and prehistoric ruins,” Coppola says. “It's an amazing place to recreate and to celebrate public lands ... Also, it was being looted. There was grave robbing, vandalism. So, it desperately needed protection.”

Coppola says Trump’s decision to ask Zinke to fast-track his review of Bears Ears was clearly a political strategy.

“They had been hearing from the Utah delegation, who really didn't want to see this land as a national monument,” she says. “Definitely, there are industry interests that are chomping at the bit to tear apart this land. The president and his administration weren't looking at all the folks on the ground and, of course, the historic partnership of the intertribal coalition that wanted to see this land protected.”

Zinke says he's not recommending that Trump revokes Bears Ears' national monument status, but rather that the protected lands be "rightsized.” Coppola fears the land will be parceled out or shrunk to such an extent that its remaining protections will be insignificant.

“This not only would be very tragic for Bears Ears, the stakeholders and the tribes that have fought for years for this designation, but really it would be an affront to all public-lands lovers and, really, all Americans,” Coppola insists.

Zinke’s entire review process has been strange, Coppola says. First, there is no precedent for a president to remove or revoke a national monument, and no president has ever attempted to do so. “Legal scholars are in agreement that no president has the authority to eliminate or significantly alter a national park or a national monument. That's something that only Congress has the authority to do,” Coppola says.

Secondly, the public and other stakeholders had only 15 days to comment on Zinke’s review, which Coppola calls “an incredibly short time for a national monument comment [period].” Even with that, Earthjustice and several other national groups collected over 700,000 comments in support of Bears Ears alone and 300,000 additional comments opposing any changes to national monument designations.

While Trump can’t act on his own, Zinke’s review could wind up in a bill that would be presented in Congress, so Bears Ears and other national monuments still face a grave threat, Coppola says.

“There have been a lot of bills introduced to sell off public lands,” she notes. “If that does happen, I do think that, at a bipartisan level, there's overwhelming support for these lands ... I think it’s going to be a challenge for such a bill to go through. It would face a lot of opposition.”

“Earthjustice has put it out there that, if Trump follows Zinke’s recommendation to shrink Bears Ears, we're going to see him in court,” Coppola adds. “This is illegal and the public needs to know about it.” The next public comment period for all national monuments ends on July 10. Then, at the end of August, the Interior Department will issue recommendations on the other 26 monuments Trump ordered Zinke to review.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

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