Bears Ears and the Review of National Monuments

I’ve held off writing about Bears Ears National Monument and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s review of national monuments mainly because I didn’t feel I could contribute more to the conversation. I haven’t been to the new monument and aside from reading a lot about it, did not offer a new perspective. However, it has felt wrong to be in the position of making guidebooks for the outdoors — and in particular places in the national park system — without taking a stance on the issue.

Since learning that Bears Ears National Monument has been a big effort on the part of multiple Native American tribes, I have supported it. There is no question about the cultural significance of the sites in the area and it’s about time our government heeds Native Americans’ advice in land management. The results of the review are not yet public, but so far it appears that it is more biased pandering rather than listening to the overwhelming support for the monuments. Allowing monuments to be subject to review by future presidents is bad for all conservation efforts.

ancient carvings in bears ears

Photo: US Bureau of Land Management

For those not following this aspect of the news, last week (August 24th, 2017) marked the deadline for Secretary Zinke’s review of 27 national monuments. His review was not made public, so all we know is that a “handful” of parks have been recommended for “changes.” A public summary was released, and the Audubon Society has an excellent news roundup. The gist of it is that Zinke seems to be recommending exactly what the Trump administration expected him to recommend: dramatically reducing the size of some of the monuments.

The justification for the administration’s action was to review monuments designated since Bill Clinton’s reelection that are “100,000 acres or greater in size or made without adequate public consultation.” There is precedence for the executive branch to shrink the size of monuments; however, it has never been tested by the courts and there has never before been a “review” of them.

The size of several of the monuments — Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears, in particular — has drawn particular attention. They’re large. Bears Ears, for example, is four times the size of nearby Canyonlands National Park. The Antiquities Act, the legal code that allows the President to designate monuments, actually includes a stipulation that “[t]he limits of the parcels shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

However, they’re not that dramatically larger than other monuments designated in the past, such as Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. The size of national monuments has already been litigated extensively, and the message from the courts is that it is Congress’ job to limit the power of the Antiquities Act if indeed it should be restricted. The Fordham Environmental Law Review offers a readable but long summary on the legal history. So, while there is a precedent for a president reducing the size of monuments, historically these monuments aren’t all that unusual for their size.

While the review’s discussion of size has a difficult legal history, the “adequate public consultation” part is just false and increasingly hypocritical as Zinke cherry-picks the public he consults with. It is also extremely secretive: Zinke has removed monuments from the review list without giving any reason or comment. After the request for public comment, his summary states, “Comments received were overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments — “ which he then dismisses with the next breath “ — and demonstrated a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations.” The motivations of hundreds of thousands of individuals participating in conservation campaigns are given no credibility. The comments for reducing or eliminating the monuments — the vast minority of comments, even by Zinke’s account — receive a great deal of attention in the next 86 words and the final word of the summary.

Ruins at cedar mesa

Moon House at Cedar Mesa Photo: US Bureau of Land Managment

Zinke’s dismissiveness of conservation and tribal matters was particularly evident in the case of Bears Ears, where he spent four days touring the area almost entirely in the company of Utah politicians and energy-sector representatives opposed to the monument designation. In comparison, he spent 90 minutes with tribal leaders supporting the monument. It should be noted that former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell also spent four days traveling the area and soliciting public opinion.

In a single quote from Indian Country Today:

“Secretary Zinke’s recommendation is an insult to tribes,” said Carleton Bowekaty, Zuni Pueblo councilman and coalition co-chair, in a statement. “He has shown complete disregard for sovereign tribes with ancestral connections to the region, as well as to the hundreds of thousands of people who have expressed support for Bears Ears National Monument.”

We don’t actually know what the Secretary’s recommendations are, however, since they’re still secret. Perhaps his recommendations might end up looking reasonable? I’m not too optimistic. It seems likely this story will fit into the broader Trump administration narrative of undoing anything done under Obama and eliminating protections for people and the environment. Secretary Zinke already seems to be supporting this agenda as much as he can.

Zinke is clearly upset by supporters of the monuments giving the reasoning that they want public land to stay public. He has repeatedly said that he is against any sale or transfer of public lands. However, given that this is the goal of many of the politicians and organizations that he gives attention to, the argument that this review is part of a slippery slope is not far fetched.

People who oppose the size or designation of the monuments should be taking no comfort in these outcomes. Once a more responsible administration — from either party — that is interested in conservation comes to office, many of the Trump administration’s actions can be undone in much the same way. That precedent is being set. This potential for back-and-forth hardly seems like the intent of the Antiquities Act, and it is extremely damaging to conservation efforts of any kind when they are subject to political winds.

Kurt Repanshek of the National Parks Traveler argues that some attempt should be made to remove the administration and Congress from the process, although that seems infeasible to me. Requiring an act of Congress to diminish or remove a monument seems like a reasonable alternative. Since no court has ruled on the legality of downsizing monuments, it’s possible this may yet be how the process works.

Afield Trails stands with many other outdoor industry companies in supporting conservation and opposes any attempt to shrink national monuments or other federally designated public lands. Ideally, we could make public lands less subject to politics but still constrained by a reasoned process. Unfortunately, Zinke’s review has all the markings of political theater, not of thoughtful balance.

photo of Patrick Lacz

Patrick Lacz

Founder and principal software engineer of Afield Trails

Patrick is a former Google software engineer and worked on many products from SketchUp to Google Drive and Google Now. He loves sharing the outdoors with his family, playing board games, and getting in the occasional multipitch climb.

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