Public lands lovers have been up in arms since the Trump administration issued the final management plans for what’s left of Bears Ears National Monument. And the outrage is sowing confusion, along with headlines that imply that the plans “invite polluters into” the national monument, or that the “US plans to open millions of acres of public lands to cattle, drilling.”
That’s not quite right.
Every day, Trump and his plutocrats and sycophants give us plenty to be disgusted about. The new Bears Ears management plan, despite being pathetically inadequate, isn’t all that worthy of outrage. What is outrageous is this: The removal of lands from national monument status in the first place, along with the evisceration of dozens of regulations that were put in place to protect those public lands. The new plan does nothing to change that.
President Barack Obama established the Bears Ears National Monument on 1.35 million acres of federal land in 2016 using the Antiquities Act. The designation immediately halted all new oil and gas leasing and the staking of new mining claims (existing mineral rights remained in place, however, as did the ability to file for new grazing rights). Obama left office before the management planning process began.
A year later, in December 2017, Trump signed the proclamation that shrunk the original monument by about 85%. That re-opened 1.1 million acres to oil and gas leasing and mining claims. The 201,876 acres that remained of the monument remain off-limits to drilling and mining.
The shrinkage immediately faced legal challenges from the tribal nations that proposed the monument in the first place, as well as from environmental groups. Unlike an executive order, the Antiquities Act, passed by Congress in 1906, is a one-way law: A president can use it to protect antiquities, but not to take those protections away. In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Management Policy Act, which further strengthened the one-way nature of the Act. Prior to FLPMA, presidents did modify the boundaries of monuments established by their predecessors. However, the actions were never tested in the courts.
Despite the fact that the status of the monument and its boundaries were in legal limbo, the Bureau of Land Management in 2018 started the process of creating a management plan for what remained of the diminished monument. The move was not only premature, but it was also like tossing salt in the gaping wound left by the original shrinkage. And, assuming the courts reverse the shrinkage, it will likely turn out to be a big waste of effort and resources.
In early February, the process was completed when the BLM handed down its approved management plans for the Indian Creek and Shash Jáa units, which make up the post-shrinkage Bears Ears National Monument. The plans do not apply to or affect the 1.1 million acres that were removed from the original monument.
As is typically the case in the crafting of such plans, the BLM put forward several alternatives, from “no action,” which mostly would have kept the status quo on monument lands, to the “environmentally preferred alternative,” which was more restrictive and prescriptive.
In the end, the BLM chose a mash-up of all the alternatives, leaning heavily in the “no action” direction, which the agency says has “fewer land and resource use restrictions” and allows for “review of management actions on a case-by-case basis at the site-specific implementation level.” In other words, while there are slightly more protections than there were prior to monument designation, the plans generally retain the status quo.
- Off-highway vehicles will continue to be allowed on designated routes — which are plentiful — but there will be no OHV free-for-all areas. Mountain biking will be limited to designated OHV routes. OHVs will continue to be allowed in Arch Canyon.
- Heavily visited, fragile cultural sites will remain open to the public, but visitor numbers will continue to be limited at Moon House.
- Target shooting will be prohibited near rock art sites, but not in other parts of the monument. The plan puts stricter restrictions on collection of petrified wood and fossils, and puts a few places off-limits to camping and OHV use.
- Arch, Mule, Fish, and Owl Canyons, as well as nine tributaries to Butler Wash, will be closed to grazing, but the plan also “facilitates economic opportunities in the local communities supported by tourism, which includes guided tours and dispersed recreation, as well as economic opportunities provided by grazing.” In other words, grazing will continue on most of what remains of the monument, and visitation will be encouraged everywhere, even in fragile areas.
- The plans “maintain or increase existing level of vegetation treatments” for fire management, which could be a justification to do more chaining (which is where a swath of land is cleared of vegetation by dragging a huge chain behind bulldozers, often to convert forests into grazing land).
- More specifics will be ironed out in the cultural resource, recreation area/business, and travel management plans, to be formulated over the next several years.
But those particulars are less relevant than the fact that they only apply to a mere fraction of the lands that were protected under the Obama monument designation. The 1.1 million acres taken out of the original monument contain some of the most sensitive, spectacular, and culturally rich areas.
Those who opposed monument designation in the first place argue that the protections afforded by a monument are unnecessary since several layers of regulations already limit or mitigate development on public lands. Yet the Trump administration has gone on a regulatory rollback frenzy, stripping away the rules that were put in place to protect the nation’s land, water, air, workers, and human health. Those 1.1 million acres are all the more vulnerable as a result.
These new management plans don’t change that in any way. They do, however, provide a look at what we can expect if the courts overturn Trump’s monument shrinkage and Trump is re-elected: Most likely, a similar, minimally protective plan will be extended to the restored monument, rendering it little more than a monument in name, only, while attracting more visitors and more damage.
If a Democrat is elected in November, however, they could use the Antiquities Act as it was intended, and re-designate the monument within its original boundaries. Even better, they could designate a bigger monument, one that follows the boundaries originally proposed by the inter-tribal coalition. Then they could toss out the inadequate management plans and start from scratch.
Jonathan P. Thompson is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster (Torrey House, 2018), and the forthcoming novel, Behind the Slickrock Curtain (Lost Souls Press, 2020).