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Utah monument myths

Friday, December 8th, 2017

As expected, earlier this week the president reduced the size of both Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. This was the largest scale back of national monuments in history. Many are questioning not only of the legality of the president’s proclamation but also transparency behind the monument review process. During the time it’s taking to answer these questions, everyone seems to have an opinion on this move. Unfortunately, I’m reading a lot of misinformation that has helped to form many of these opinions (from both “sides” such as they are).

It’s no secret which side of the barbed wire fence I’m on, however I thought it would be helpful to put opinions aside for a minute and address some major misconceptions surrounding these national monuments, and to put some of the current state of things in a historical context. Late last year I wrote a blog post on public lands in the West, so you may want to start there.


1. The monuments were nothing but land grabs in the first place.

I’m starting with this one, because it’s the claim I have the most difficulty wrapping my head around. Both the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments were public land before and after their monument designations. The designation changed from unappropriated public lands to national monument, and with that came a change in some (but not all) management policies but it is impossible for the federal government to have grabbed land from itself.

There is one caveat to this. State trust lands represent one section in each 32-section township. They are federal land that was granted to states upon their entry into the union, and are usually considered revenue-generating land for the state. The revenue from trust lands almost always benefits public education. When both monuments were designated, some trust lands were included in those designations.

To compensate for this loss of revenue in Utah when Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated in 1996, the federal government gave the state some of its land outside of the monument in exchange for the state trust lands inside of the monument. Because of the mineral-rich quality of the new land, those parcels are now estimated to be worth over $1 billion. In addition, the US government gave Utah $50 million. This land and cash swap received overwhelming bipartisan support. A similar swap was in the plan for Bears Ears.

2. It’s good that the president gave the land back to Utah

See #1 above. There was no land to give back to Utah, since it was federal land to start with. In fact, Article III of Utah’s constitution specifically says that the land slashed from these two national monuments is not Utah’s land until it’s sold to the state.

Since it was federal land before the monument designations, it remains what is called unappropriated public land. This simply means it has no title tied to it like National Monument, National Recreation Area, National Park, etc.

3. Without national monument status, the vast landscape of the Bears Ears region will be subjected to unchecked exploitation.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert addressed this with a misleading statement earlier this week in the Deseret News. What he didn’t mention is that state trust lands can (and have) been sold off in the recent past. In 2015, a section of state trust land on Comb Ridge was sold; that could be developed, but also restricts public access. One can only speculate whether this would happen again, but no one can say that it couldn’t. Finally, interjecting here with a bit of my opinion: When these lands are sold, they create a discontinuous cultural landscape, and are gone for good.

4. Ranchers have been kicked out of their historic range.

This is untrue. The original monument proclamation at Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996 included specific language to keep grazing permits intact. See this document from the BLM regarding grazing.

5. National monuments aren’t good for the economy.

National monuments bring tourism to the area, and with that comes jobs. While some studies show an increase in per capita income, others show no change, but no studies show a decline.

6. Hunting and fishing isn’t allowed on national monuments, nor is anything else my family has done for generations.

There is concern that activities that people have enjoyed for decades will be forbidden or limited with national monument designations. To be sure, national parks do limit certain activities, such as collection of herbs or plant material, and very few parks allow hunting. However, monuments are different. Backcountry Hunters & Anglers has a really nice interactive webpage to illustrate exactly what is hunted in each of the national monuments that have been identified for “modification.” Further, Utah Diné Bikeyah outlines what else is allowed in Bears Ears National Monument on their website.

7. Archaeological sites have always been protected, so the monument designation is meaningless (i.e., it doesn’t add any additional protections).

In a recent statement, Secretary of the Interior Zinke said, “Whether these resources are found on land designated as a monument, national forest, BLM- managed public land, or other federal land, it is generally illegal to remove or disrupt these resources without a permit issued by the federal government.” True enough, but with the amount of looting that has been documented, there’s no way anyone sane could claim these places have had any meaningful protection pre-monument. See a Washington Post article here, and a Smithsonian Magazine article here that discuss the looting problem in more detail.


However, it’s important to have correct information as you build your opinions, so what would you add? Have you heard any misconceptions regarding these monuments, or the monument review that happened earlier this year? Let me know and I can add it in to this blog post.

close-up photo of whimsical sandstone patterns in grand staircase-escalate national monument, utah

In defense of Bears Ears National Monument

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

In my last blog post, I talked about Executive Order 13792, which orders a review of the national monuments, many of which in the West, established since 1996. This review is to ensure that they were created in accordance with the original intent of the Antiquities Act of 1906. The most pressing national monument “under review” is Bears Ears. The Department of Interior has opened the public comment period for this order, and for Bears Ears, it is only 15 days long. Please make your opinion heard; it is the only way for the the Secretary to hear our thoughts on this matter. Below is my letter about Bears Ears specifically.

Comments may be submitted online at http://www.regulations.gov by entering “DOI-2017-0002” in the Search bar and clicking “Search,” or by mail to Monument Review, MS-1530, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240.


Secretary Zinke,

This letter regards Executive Order 13792, and specifically Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.

Bears Ears is home to several thousand archaeological sites. The sites themselves as well as the landscape are sacred to several Native American tribes. As such, the advocacy group Utah Diné Bikeyah formed from a collaborative effort between these tribes to protect this landscape. If there ever was a place that the Antiquities Act seems “written for,” Bears Ears most certainly is it. When President Obama designated the national monument in December 2016, it was was worthy of celebration because the preservation of these sites is now guaranteed as part of our national heritage. President Obama’s proclamation was also a testament to the sovereignty of these tribes, and the importance of their history to the nation.

Within the monument, recreational activities that were permissible before the monument designation are still allowed. With a permit, people can still gather firewood, herbs, and shrubs. Thus, the use and enjoyment of the land has not been affected. However, I am writing this letter to specifically address two other arguments against Bears Ears. The first is the size of the monument, and the economic impact that could have on local communities.

thunderstorm and fiery sunset at bears ears buttes in san juan county utah

In 2013, Representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz put forward what they called the Public Lands Initiative (PLI), in which they would set aside part of the Bears Ears region as a national recreation area, which would essentially provide the same protections from oil and gas development or uranium mining as a monument designation under the Antiquities Act. Utah Diné Bikeyah proposed a similar, albeit larger, set of borders for their visualized national monument.

When the Obama administration designated Bears Ears National Monument, the borders they drafted more closely matched the national recreation area proposed in the PLI than those proposed by Utah Diné Bikeyah. What’s more, GIS data from the state of Utah show that the majority of oil and gas wells currently lie outside of the monument (possibly due to low success and complex terrain for drilling). The area’s most significant coal reserves lie completely outside of the monument boundaries. No areas within the monument are currently classified as having “high potential” for uranium mines either. When the monument was created, these data must surely have been available to the Obama administration.

Finally, critics have expressed concern for Utah’s schools. There are several inholdings of state trust land parcels within Bears Ears; they cannot be developed for mineral extraction because they lie within the monument. In 1996, when President Clinton designated Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the federal government and the state eventually “swapped” for 139,000 acres of federal land that was outside of the monument with the Utah Trust Lands Administration for those types of private inholdings. In addition, the federal government paid the state of Utah $50 million. To date, the mineral extraction from that swapped land has yielded ~$1.7 billion in revenue for the state of Utah. Senator Bennett called this a “model for future land swaps,” and I agree with him. It was a win-win for all parties, and I believe it could work equally well in Bears Ears.

I grew up in the northwestern corner of New Mexico, and had many backpacking outings in the Bears Ears region. With my dad, and with my Boy Scout troop, we explored many of the canyons on Cedar Mesa, and saw many of the archaeological sites that are now protected. These are some of my fondest memories of time spent in the outdoors. Just like so many of our national parks and monuments, Bears Ears is one of our national treasures. As Westerners, we are bound to protect these lands; it is not in our nature to hastily exploit them for short-term gain. The preservation of Bears Ears keeps a promise to past and future generations, and is one that can transcend partisan politics. Please join me in standing with Bears Ears and making it our nation’s common ground.

photo of valley of the gods located in bears ears national monument

Welcome Bears Ears National Monument!

Sunday, February 5th, 2017

President Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate Bears Ears National Monument on December 28, 2016. The greater Bears Ears region and national monument includes Cedar Mesa, Comb Ridge, Valley of the Gods, Elk Ridge, Beef Basin, Indian Creek and Lockhart Basin, among others.

map of bears ears national monument

Credit: Stephanie Smith, Grand Canyon Trust

In large part, the designation of this monument was due to the arduous work of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a collective of five Native American tribes, who all hold parts of the new monument sacred. Bears Ears is the first truly Native American national monument, and these tribes’ collective heritage will now be protected for generations to come.

photograph of intact native american ruin in bears ears national monument

On a personal note, having grown up in the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States, many of my early backpacking trips were on Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch. I can still remember discovering just a few of the hundreds of Ancestral Puebloan ruins and rock art in this area; these are some of my favorite memories of time spent in the outdoors. Today, whenever I visit my parents, who still live in northwestern New Mexico, the Bears Ears buttes are a landmark that I see to tell me I’m home. I’m very grateful to Utah Diné Bikéyah and others whose hard work made this monument possible. I’ve blogged many times on Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa (see posts here, here, and here, for instance).

photograph of clouds and rocks in valley of the gods utah

To celebrate the designation of Bears Ears, I’ve put together a collection of my images from the monument in one place. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit soon and add more.

Although I’ve published this gallery on social media, I have been a little bit slow in getting it to my blog. Since the monument was designated, it’s come under heavy fire (see links here and here for details). This criticism as a “land grab,” has come primarily from Utah Republican lawmakers who are also key leaders in the land transfer movement (see my blog post here for details). So, ironically, although Bears Ears has protection, it now needs your support more than ever. Please consider a donation directly to Utah Diné Bikéyah or the Grand Canyon Trust to help them combat efforts to reverse the monument designation, and contact your lawmakers to voice your opposition to it.