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What Trump’s Shrinking of National Monuments Actually Means

The president announced reductions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, but the actual picture on the ground remains highly uncertain.

In a speech delivered in Salt Lake City on Monday, President Trump announced his intention to sharply reduce two Utah national monuments established by his predecessors.

In a move presaged by leaked government documents, Trump announced that he would reduce the 1.35-million acre Bears Ears National Monument, created by President Barack Obama in late 2016, by 85 percent. The president also said he would cut the 1.88-million acre Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996, nearly in half. (See maps of the monuments under recent review.)

“Some people think that the natural resources should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington,” Trump said at Utah’s domed State Capitol. “And guess what: They’re wrong.”

The reductions are the culmination of a wide-ranging Interior Department review of recent monument designations and a highly symbolic salvo in a larger campaign to reverse Obama-era public land policies. The Trump administration’s recent edicts—opening new mineral and oil and gas leasing opportunities in protected lands, easing drilling regulations, and rolling back habitat protections for endangered species—have met with furious opposition from conservation groups, outdoor tourism advocates, and Democratic lawmakers.

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rides a horse in the Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah. At the request of President Trump, Zinke conducted a review of 27 national monuments created over the past few decades and recommended that some be shrunk.

None, however, have generated as much public outrage as the monuments review. Last summer, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke traveled across the western United States visiting monuments targeted for potential reduction. Monday’s order has made some of his recommendations official.

What’s next for the two monuments? First up: litigation. The 1906 Antiquities Act gives presidents broad discretion to protect “historic landmarks … and other objects of historic or scientific interest,” without any input from Congress. There is no language in the law, however, granting presidents the power to rescind or cut them. Presidents have made minor adjustments to monument boundaries and one major reduction: in 1915, Woodrow Wilson reduced Mount Olympus National Monument almost by half. None of those excisions have occurred in the last 50 years, however, and none have ever been tested in court.

That is about to change. “We’ve got the documents ready to file,” says University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson, who serves as advisor to the coalition of five Indian nations that petitioned for the creation of the Bears Ears monument. Conservation groups have also prepared to file suit to protect Grand Staircase Escalante, and it is likely that the monuments’ fate will be tied up in court for many months to come.

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This protest at the state capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah, was held on Saturday, December 2nd. It was organized by 15 organizations and led by representatives from the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group of five Native American tribes that lobbied for the creation of the Bears Ears monument. The Utah Highway Patrol estimated 5,000 in attendance.

What Happens Next

We shouldn’t expect a big transformation at Bears Ears, at least initially. Created in the waning days of the Obama administration, all changes were put on hold pending Secretary Zinke’s review. The Bureau of Land Management manages the land and its footprint has always been light: until last year only one full-time law enforcement ranger oversaw the massive acreage, which descends from the pine forests and high meadows of Elk Ridge and the Bears Ears, twin buttes held sacred by local tribes, through fissured sandstone canyon systems and piñon-juniper desert notched with bladed ridges and packed with ancestral Pueblo artifacts.

With Trump’s reductions, some of that land will now be open, again, to mineral and oil-and-gas extraction—but both sides agree that we’re unlikely to see drilling rigs inside monument boundaries anytime soon. The last producing well within the Obama-monument boundaries was drilled in 1984, according to Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas & Mining, and plugged in 1992. There are lucrative oil and gas fields on the monument’s northern and southeastern boundaries, but terrain within the boundaries is rugged, remote, and archeologically sensitive.

MONUMENTAL CHANGES

The Department of the Interior manages one-fifth of

all land in the United States, including National

Monuments. Under executive order, Interior Secretary

Ryan Zinke reviewed 26 monuments to possibly alter.

At the conclusion of the review process:

 

ALASKA

 

(U.S.)

UNITED

STATES

below

(U.S.)

HAWAII

2 monuments were reduced in size.

25 monuments remained unchanged in size.

WASH.

MONTANA

MAINE

OREGON

IDAHO

UNITED

NEVADA

UTAH

CALIF.

COLORADO

STATES

ARIZ.

NEW

MEXICO

Federal land

Native American reservation

National Monument under review

UPDATED DECEMBER 5, 2017

 

MONUMENTAL

CHANGES

UPDATED DECEMBER 5, 2017

 

The Department of the Interior manages one-fifth of all land in the United States, including National Monuments. Under executive order, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reviewed 26 monuments to possibly alter. At the conclusion of the review process:

 

2 monuments were reduced in size.

25 monuments remained unchanged in size.

ALASKA

 

(U.S.)

UNITED

STATES

below

(U.S.)

HAWAII

WASH.

MONTANA

IDAHO

OREGON

UTAH

NEVADA

COLORADO

CALIF.

NEW

MEXICO

ARIZONA

Federal land

Native American land

National Monument under review

Tap list for maps and more information.

Click list for maps and more information. All maps show original size.

National Monuments reduced in size:

Created in 1996 by President Clinton, this series of cliffs and plateaus descends in multi-colored stair-steps over 1.7 million acres reaching from Bryce Canyon in southwest Utah to the Grand Canyon. The monument also protects paleontological and tribal archeological sites, as well as 300 animal species.

UPDATE: On December 4th, 2017, President Trump signed a proclamation to split Grand Staircase Escalante into three monuments. The resulting monuments have a combined area of 1,003,863 acres, which is a reduction of 46%.

Created in 2016 by President Obama and named for two buttes that jut above the ridgeline, Bears Ears originally encompassed 1.35 million acres in southern Utah’s red rock country and protected cliff dwellings and one of the West’s largest collections of tribal artifacts.

UPDATE: On December 4th, 2017, President Trump singned a proclamation to split Bears Ears into two monuments. The resulting monuments have a combined area of 201,876 acres, which is a reduction of 85%.

National Monuments reviewed but unchanged:

Created in 2000 by President Clinton in eastern Washington, the monument once served as a 194,000-acre buffer zone around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington state. It protects one of the last large shrub-steppe ecosystems in the Columbia River Basin.

Created in 2017 by President Clinton, the monument encompasses 377,000 acres along a 149-mile stretch of the Missouri River in central Montana and includes parts of the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail that remain as wild as they were in 1805.

Created in 1924 by President Coolidge, enlarged slightly by President Kennedy in 1962 and then expansively by President Clinton in 2000. Idaho lawmakers have proposed that Congress designate the original 54,000 acres of this 738,000-acre moonscape of lava beds and cinder cones as Idaho’s only national park.

Created in 2000 by President Clinton, the 100,000-acre monument straddles the Oregon-California border region of the Cascade Range and protects habitat for a diverse array of species, including the threatened spotted owl, the pileated woodpecker and the pygmy nuthatch.

Created by President Obama in 2015 in northern California, this 331,000-acre monument reaches from Pacific Ocean beaches to the 7,000-foot mountains of the Inner Coastal Range. It protects ancient Native American settlement sites and provides winter habitat for bald eagles.

Created in 2000 by President Clinton in central California, this 328,000-acre expanse is split between two sections directly north and south of Sequoia National Park, and protects 33 groves of the world’s largest tree.

Created in 2001 by President Clinton, this 204,000-acre vista is one of the last intact parts of the grassy plain that covered California’s Central Valley two centuries before settlers arrived. The monument features abundant springtime wildflowers and one of Southern California’s largest wetlands.

Created in 2014 by President Obama in the mountain forests of Southern California, this 346,000-acre “island of green” provides 70 percent of the open space and 30 percent of the drinking water for 15 million people in the Los Angeles Basin.

Created in 2016 by President Obama, the 87,500-acre monument added 54,000 acres to a 100,000-acre wilderness area in Southern California already protected by Congress. This desert-to-mountain terrain is home to more than 240 species of birds and 12 threatened or endangered animals.

Created in 2016 by President Obama, this undeveloped stretch of famed Route 66 in Southern California expands a 350,000-acre wilderness area set up by Congress into a 1.6-million-acre expanse of dramatic sand dunes and ancient lava flows.

Created in 2015 by President Obama in southeastern Nevada, the monument extends over 704,000 acres of some of the most rugged terrain in the Great Basin Desert and protects prehistoric rock art dating back 4,000 years.

Created in 2016 by President Obama, this 296,940-acre landscape of red sandstone formations fills in the gap between the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Virgin Mountains, creating a continuous wildlife corridor for large animals, including bighorn sheep and mountain lions.

Created by in 2000 by President Clinton, the monument spans just over 1 million acres of roadless, undeveloped and remote land along the north rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. It protects dramatic geologic formations of cliffs and buttes that feature fossils and tribal artifacts dating to the ice age.

Created in 2000 by President Clinton, this 293,000-acre geologic treasure of trails leading through spectacularly colored rock strata lies northeast of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Endangered California condor hatchlings bred in captivity are released here to live.

Created by President Clinton in 2001 in southern Arizona, the monument extends over 487,000 acres of mountains and thick forests of saguaro cactus in North America’s most biologically diverse desert. It also protects archaeological sites and remnants of historic trails.

Created in 2000 by President Clinton, this 129,000-acre vista lies in the Silver Bell Mountains in southern Arizona. It protects one of the densest forests of ironwood trees, which can live for 800 years.

Created in 2000 by President Clinton, the monument spans 175,160 acres in southwest Colorado. It protects archaeological sites dating back 10,000 years, and is home to many desert species including peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks and golden eagles.   

Created in 2013 by President Obama in northern New Mexico, this high desert landscape reaches across 242,500 acres of the Río Grande River Gorge and features deep canyons and volcanic cones. The monument protects numerous collections of tribal artifacts and serves as a major migratory flyway for sandhill cranes, herons, avocets, hummingbirds, and Canada geese.

Created in 2014 by President Obama, this monument includes 496,000 acres across southern New Mexico with a rich history dating to the Folsom and Clovis cultures and six wilderness study areas under protection since 1980.

Created in 2016 by President Obama in the wilds of north central Maine, this 87,500-acre collection of streams, rivers, forests and trails lies within a larger landscape that public and private efforts have worked for a century to protect.

Created in 2009 by President Obama in the western Pacific Ocean, the monument reaches for 95,216 square miles across a string of 14 volcanic islands known as the Mariana Archipelago. It supports a richly diverse array of sea life and formations, including the largest mud volcanoes on Earth.

Created by President Bush in 2006 and enlarged by President Obama in 2016 in the Pacific Ocean, this 583,000 square-mile expanse is the world’s largest protected area. One fourth of the 7,000 species of marine animals and seabirds that live in the monument are not found anywhere else.

Created by President Bush in 2009 and enlarged by President Obama in 2014, the Pacific Ocean 490,000-square-mile monument is the world’s largest marine conservation area and one of the last refuges protecting many animals and fish, including turtles, sharks, dolphins, whales, parrotfish, large grouper, and pearl oysters.

Rose Atoll Marine Created in 2009 by President Bush, this South Pacific Ocean monument protects 13,400 square miles of rare and endangered marine animals and seabirds, including giant clams, parrotfishes, sharks, whales the largest Eer of nesting turtles in American Samoa—as well as the Rose Atoll Wildlife Refuge, created in 1973 to protect the rose-colored corals for which it was named.

Created in 2016 by President Obama, the first marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean contains some of the world’s oldest deep sea canyons and extinct volcanoes. It extends for 4,913 square miles off New England and protects Kemp’s ridley sea turtles and sperm, fin and sei whales.

“Oil and gas plays are not economically viable now,” says Josh Ewing, executive director of local nonprofit conservation group Friends of Cedar Mesa. But, he adds, “they could be in the future.”

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, a zealous opponent of monument designation, agrees with this assessment. “I suspect there’s potential,” he says. “I would like to know there’s the ability to speculate on energy in that area.”

Bears Ears: Sacred and Stunning National Monument

Threats Facing Bears Ears

The biggest threat to Bears Ears in the immediate future, says Ewing, is visiting tourists. For many years, the area’s very remoteness protected its rich archeology. There are more than 100,000 ancestral Puebloan sites—cliff dwellings tucked into mineral-streaked sandstone alcoves, kivas, great houses, room blocks, ancient roads—encompassing millions of potsherds, petroglyphs, textiles, animal and human remains, sandals, grinding stones, 800-year-old corn cobs. But the era of geotagging and image searches has altered that balance: “What the Internet did was take the images and the beauty and incredible archaeology and put it out there for people,” Ewing says.

His organization estimates that visits to the area tripled between 2005 and 2015, doubled again in 2016, and doubled yet again in the first half of 2017, as the battle over the monument put Bears Ears in the news. As visitation has risen, so has the damage: tourists pocketing potsherds, campers using century-old Navajo hogans for firewood; graffiti on ancient rock panels; all-terrain vehicles blasting through ancestral burial grounds.

“The strategy of leaving it alone and trying to keep it a secret is an unsustainable option for protecting the land,” says Ewing.

Local opponents of the monument also agree that visitation is a problem. “I don’t think you’ll talk to anyone in San Juan County who believes it doesn’t need more protection,” says Nicole Perkins, a librarian in the gateway town of Blanding who has helped lead local opposition to the monument.

But many locals oppose relying on what they see as the heavy hand of the federal government to resolve it. The feds, says Lyman, “have become very much the enemy,” and monument designation only strengthens the federal regulatory grip. “They need to leave San Juan County, not own San Juan County.” The cuts to the monument, however, are unlikely to send either the BLM or the visitors away.

In the absence of resources, Friends of Cedar Mesa has embarked on private fundraising efforts to build a visitor’s center and work with the BLM on a campaign to encourage visitors to tread carefully near sensitive ruins. “We’ve created a monster where everybody wants to see the place, but we’re losing financial support from the government,” says backcountry guide Vaughn Hadenfeldt. “I think we’ll win the legal battle in the end, but the cultural resources are going to suffer incredibly in the meantime.”

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The Grand Staircase-Escalante monument takes its name from a series of plateaus extending over nearly 1.9 million acres that descend like stair-steps from Bryce Canyon in southwestern Utah to the Grand Canyon.


Grand Staircase Escalante

The calculus is different at Grand Staircase Escalante, which has been managed as a monument for 21 years. People point to the changes there as both inspiration and cautionary tale. In the years since the monument was designated, the area’s breathtaking geological spectacle— knife-edged ridges, sleek white domes, lush valleys, and cloud-shaped rock formations—has lured increasing numbers of visitors. Tourism now brings $78 million annually to nearby counties.

But some locals argue that the monument has hurt the area’s overall economy. After the monument’s designation in 1996, the government bought out the leases for a proposed coal mine on the Kaiparowits Plateau—an arid, stony mesa above the town of Escalante, rich in both fossil fuel and paleontological treasures—and a planned coal mine never opened. A lumber mill that processed timber logged from the nearby National Forest also closed in 2009 during the financial crisis; critics argue that the environmental scrutiny that came with monument designation made it too difficult to operate.

“The natural resource jobs went away,” says Drew Parkin, a resource manager who once worked at the monument but is now a vocal opponent. “In an environment like this tourism jobs can’t take their place: full-time jobs, with benefits, year-round.” When the tourists leave in winter, the only restaurant open in the town of Escalante is a Subway. Local school enrollment has dropped nearly by half; young families have left.

Supporters of the monument argue that the decline in extraction jobs and school enrollment reflect larger trends in rural towns everywhere. It is not that there aren’t jobs, they say, but that the nature of the jobs has changed.

“I could name ten businesses someone could start tomorrow that would thrive here,” says Blake Spalding, who co-owns Hell’s Backbone Grill, a busy restaurant in the gateway town of Boulder. Her restaurant and 6.5-acre organic farm has 50 employees. “Most of them make double the minimum wage,” she says. Monument supporters like Spalding point to studies showing that the creation of national monuments expand the economies in nearby communities; anti-monument groups trot out other research showing the opposite.

The Impacts of Uncertainty

Will resource jobs return to Escalante? The coal on the Kaiparowits is deeply buried. It will be difficult to recover and even more difficult to get to market through such craggy, harsh, remote terrain; the collapse of the market for coal today makes those economics even more difficult.

“It didn’t happen when coal was king in the 70s because the infrastructure wasn’t there,” says Nicole Croft of Escalante Partners, a local environmental organization. Nor will the new boundaries alter the math for the cattle industry in the monument: ranchers still run cattle on the vast majority of the acreage they leased before its creation.

What the cuts have introduced to Escalante and national monument communities across the nation is uncertainty. “It’s been 21 years now,” says Spalding. “These gateway towns are full of people who made lives and families around the monument.”

Will tourists continue to visit, Spalding asks, if there are drilling rigs in the foreground and mining plumes in the background? “No one knows what will happen next,” says Croft. “The rug is being pulled out from under us.”

Hannah Nordhaus is author of American Ghost and The Beekeeper’s Lament. Based in Boulder, Colorado, she is covering public lands in the West for National Geographic magazine, with National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey. Huey is based in Seattle and has extensively covered cultural and environmental issues.

This story was updated at 4:00 pm ET on December 4 with quotes from President Trump and confirmed details of the reductions.