Utah monument myths

Written by Alpenglow Images on 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 Din√© 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


4 Comments so far ↓

  1. Guy Tal says:

    Worth mentioning that income from state trust lands (SITLA) makes only 1.5% of Utah’s education budget. SITLA has a lot of political weight in the state (e.g., they are exempt from zoning laws), despite this shameful mismanagement of the lands within its control.

    The numbers become even more unimpressive when you consider that Utah ranks dead last in the country in per-pupil education spending.

    If education is a priority for this state, it doesn’t show in the numbers, and certainly doesn’t indicate that land management by SITLA or other agencies in the state is a very good idea.

  2. Raymond Lee says:

    I have read both your blogs Greg and am in general agreement on the first, the history of public land and the need to keep it under federal control (except NM & AZ gained statehood in 1912).

    My argument is with the misuse of the Antiquities Act by recent Presidents to designate millions of acres as monuments.

    The Act gave the President the authority to create Monuments without Congressional approval, thus abrogating Congressional responsibility for oversight of national lands for protecting specific objects.

    The specific language of the Act states that the size should be the minimum necessary to protect objects of historic and scientific interest.

    The law has existed for 111 years, yet, of the 19 National Monuments that exceed 250,000 acres, 15 have been designated in the last 20 years; beginning with Clinton in 1996. Until these changes were made, the two National Monuments impacted were the 2nd and 4th largest in the country; encompassing a combined 3,231,950 acres.

    That’s confined to the smallest area needed to protect artifacts?

    You state that Monuments are different from Parks in the limitation of activities. In some cases that is true. But Monuments and BLM/NFS land are also different in the limitation of activities. Unless specified in the language of the executive order creating the Monument, many of the uses of the land can be much more restrictive than pre-monument designation. Almost certainly these designations have been used to circumvent the 1872 mining law. I have also run into no access, no hunting, no fishing, no wood cutting, no metal detectors on public land post-monument. To be fair, I have also begun to see more and more of these restrictions on BLM and NFS land.

    To your item 7, there is no way anyone sane could claim these places will have any meaningful protection post-monument without a huge increase in manpower to patrol (unlikely with current fiscal policy) or severe restriction of public access to the places in question.

    I am a 5th generation westerner. I and my family have been ranchers, loggers, and miners benefiting from the use of public lands for both our livelihood and recreation.

    • Hi, Raymond, thanks for your thoughtful comments. It seems we’re in agreement on a lot of things regarding monument designations, but have slightly different opinions regarding others.

      You clearly have a very good understanding of public lands, which is not what I saw on social media (and thus prompted this blog post).

      Regarding the words in the Antiquities Act:

      “Declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated on land owned or controlled by the Federal Government to be national monuments the limits of the parcels shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

      I would refer you to this publication:


      It’s comparing the size of the Bears Ears National Monument to the two National Conservation Areas proposed by Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz. The authors also talk about the history behind that specific verbiage above. The take-home message is that the two proposals weren’t that different–they would both be protecting HUGE areas of land.

      This leads me to my biggest issue with this whole monument review: I don’t believe the argument is about WHAT was protected, but rather WHO protected it. Right or left, undoing the actions of your predecessors just for the sake of undoing them isn’t right. That’s the message I’m getting.

      The article I link to above also goes on to say that National Conservation Areas are historically more restrictive in terms of what activities are allowed than Monuments.

      While I can’t argue that recent monuments aren’t big, think about all that’s being protected there. How do you choose a small percentage of culturally sensitive sites in Bears Ears to protect, while excluding others? The very nature of the landscape–in my opinion–requires a large monument. The same would be true for Grand Staircase-Escalante. What fossils haven’t been discovered yet?

      Finally, while monuments can be more restrictive in terms of use, none of the monuments under threat for reduction actually are. The management plans for GSENM and Bears Ears don’t restrict previous activities. Rio Grande del Norte NM in New Mexico even protects a power line right of way.

      I hope my response addresses your comments; perhaps in the end we may have to agree to disagree regarding the size of the monuments, but–again–I do appreciate your thoughtful response.

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