On December 4, 2017 President Trump flew to Salt Lake City to announce that he would slash the size of two Utah National Monuments. Bears Ears National Monument was cut by 85%, with one remaining portion re-named to exclude reference to all but Navajo cultural heritage (five tribes have ancestral ties to Bears Ears). Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument lost 50% of its area, re-animating threats that coal strip mines could irreparably scar the Kaiparowits Plateau.
Trump’s announcement at the Utah State Capitol was ugly, disheartening and poorly handled by Utah politicians who called for “local control” even as they continued to shut out Utah locals and other stakeholders who want to preserve national monuments. Despite Trump’s states’ rights rhetoric, Utah Governor Gary Herbert claimed he did not know what the shrunken boundaries would look like up until the event.
While Trump delivered a bizarrely misinformed speech to a hand-selected audience, an estimated 2,000 monument supporters were told to stay in a “free speech zone” so that Trump would not see them.
The protesters took a knee in the middle of State Street as Trump announced the downsizing, and then spontaneously marched to the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building.
The attack on the national monuments was done at the request of Senator Orrin Hatch with reference to a segment of the 2016 Republican party platform that calls for privatization of federal public land. In April 2017, Trump issued an executive order calling for “Review of Designations Under the Antiquaties Act.” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made a perfunctory visit to Utah where he met with selected “locals” sympathetic to reducing or rescinding national monuments but also received a heartfelt tour from dinosaur sleuth extraordinaire Alan Titus.
A public comment period for the executive order drew over 2.8 million comments and a report prepared for the Wilderness Society found that 93.3% of all comments opposed the monument review, with 90.9% of comments from Utah opposed. The Wilderness Society report concludes that people “have spoken clearly and forcefully for the continued protection of America’s public lands and the natural, scenic, sacred, culturally and historically significant places they contain.”
Zinke drew a different conclusion in his own report issued in August 2017 which dismissed public support for monuments as “a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations.” The Zinke report concludes that rather than conservation, priority should be given to “grazing, timber production, mining, hunting and fishing, and motorized recreation.” Monument boundaries were re-drawn specifically to open formerly protected lands for the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline, uranium mining, coal mining and paving of dirt roads.
To date, five lawsuits have been filed to restore Utah’s national monuments. One is by the five American Indian tribes with cultural ties to Bears Ears (Hopi, Navajo, Utah Indian, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni). Utah Diné Bikéyah, the grassroots Navajo group that originated the proposal, filed suit backed by Friends of Cedar Mesa, Archaeology Southwest, Conservation Lands Foundation, Patagonia Works, Access Fund, National Trust for Historic Places and the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology.
The non-profit environmental law organization Earthjustice has also filed suit over both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante on behalf of conservation groups including Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Grand Canyon Trust, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Western Watersheds Project, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife. Grand Staircase Escalante Partners has also filed a lawsuit.
You can support restoration of national Monument boundaries through any of these organizations, or by directly supporting their legal teams:
Native American Rights Fund: narf.org
Utah Diné Bikéyah: UtahDineBikeyah.org