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Interior Secretary's review recommends shrinking at least four national monuments including Bears Ears

Posted on: September 19, 2017


This panorama from the top of Bridger Jack Butte shows part of Indian Creek's classic landscape that is currently protected by the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. Recent reports indicate that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended President Donald Trump shrink Bears Ears and other national monuments. [Photo] Derek FranzThis panorama from the top of Bridger Jack Butte shows part of Indian Creek's classic landscape that is currently protected by the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. Recent reports indicate that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended President Donald Trump shrink Bears Ears and other national monuments. [Photo] Derek Franz

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted his final recommendations to President Donald Trump on August 24 about whether or not to change, reduce or rescind several national monuments, but the details of his report were not immediately released. On September 17, The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal disclosed copies of Zinke's report, which indicated that the Secretary has recommended reductions to four national monuments: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante (Utah), Gold Butte (Nevada) and Cascade-Siskiyou (Oregon). According to the news sources, Zinke's report does not specify by how much he thinks the monuments should be reduced.

Bears Ears has cultural significance for at least five Native American tribes, whose members are largely responsible for the monument's creation. It also contains world-class climbing areas such as Indian Creek.

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The Access Fund—an organization that advocates for the protection of, and access to, climbing areas around the country—wrote in a September 18 statement: "The threats to Indian Creek are real. The fate of Bears Ears National Monument, and Indian Creek, lies in the hands of President Trump. Access Fund urges the President not to act on the short-sighted recommendations of Secretary Zinke and Governor [Gary] Herbert."

According to the Salt Lake City Tribune, Utah legislators are asking Trump to reduce Bears Ears to one-tenth of its current 1.35-million-acre size.

"Governor Herbert's maps show a 90 percent reduction to Bears Ears National Monument, exposing Indian Creek to impacts from industrial development," the Access Fund reported. "Much of Indian Creek is located within Bureau of Land Management parcels that are proposed for oil and gas development."

Trump ordered the 120-day review of the monuments in April, citing "abuse" of the Antiquities Act, which grants presidents the authority to declare monuments "which shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected."

Rob Bishop, a Republican Utah Representative and Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, told reporters in an August 24 phone conference that he thought the system for using the Antiquities Act was broken; that he believed that monuments like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante are too large—larger than what he considered the Antiquities Act intended—and that they were created "without transparency" or public input. At the same time, he said he believed "it's perfectly fair" for the White House to have time to read the report before its details are made public.

That same day, Colorado Senator Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) articulated concerns about Zinke's undisclosed report:

Keeping today's recommendations secret is further proof that this ill-conceived and unnecessary review process is not in the best interest of local communities and tribes. Despite claims of transparency, it is troubling that Secretary Zinke would leave the American public in the dark, while the president decides the fate of our public land and water. Stakeholders and tribes, including the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes and Bears [Ears] Inter-Tribal Coalition, worked tirelessly to protect their ancestral home from future development with the designation of Bears Ears National Monument—yet the Trump administration failed to consider their input or address their concerns in the review. We will continue to oppose this wildly unpopular effort to dismantle national monuments with all the tools at our disposal in the United States Senate.

Access Fund Policy Director Erik Murdock echoed Bennett's statement.

"If you're proud of something, and if it's so good for the public interest, why hide it?" he said.

A lot of people would like to know: the Department of Interior (DOI) reported that it received more than 2.4 million public comments on regulations.gov since the review was ordered.

A typical sunset in Indian Creek, Utah. [Photo] Derek FranzA typical sunset in Indian Creek, Utah. [Photo] Derek Franz

More background on the debate

Zinke's repeated statements claim that Bears Ears was created with little to no input from the "local stakeholders."

"Too often under previous administrations, decisions were made in the Washington, D.C., bubble, far removed from the local residents who actually work the land and have to live with the consequences of D.C.'s actions," Zinke said in the DOI press release August 24. "This monument review is the exact opposite. President Trump and I opened the formal public comment period...in order to give local stakeholders a voice in the decision-making process...."

Supporters of the monument, however, point out that Bears Ears National Monument had a great deal of stakeholder input. The local tribes were the first to initiate a concerted effort to protect the area starting in 2010, when Utah Dine Bikeyah (UDB) formed. The group ultimately led to the formation of the Inter-Tribal Coalition, which unified the five tribes with direct involvement in the area and garnered the support of many other tribes across the nation.

UDB Board Chairman Willie Grayeyes issued this statement when Trump ordered the review of Bears Ears and many other national monuments last April:

UDB condemns this partisan attack. We also believe Bears Ears National Monument to be the most qualified area designated in the past 21 years, and also the most thoroughly studied, researched, and vetted by all sides. This monument enjoys support in Utah, is an economic driver for our reservation communities here in San Juan County, and it enables more local control and stewardship of the region by local Tribes and Utahns. Personally, I don't understand why Utah officials can't put these weapons down, sit down with Tribal leaders and San Juan County citizens and all work together on these issues we agree upon.

Prior to outgoing President Barack Obama's designation of Bears Ears National Monument, former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell attended several public meetings in Utah, including San Juan County where the bulk of the monument is located.

In the days leading up to Zinke's Utah visit in early May, Paige Blakenbueler reported for High Country News that the Inter-Tribal Coalition held a conference call in which the members "requested an audience with the Interior secretary. They say Zinke, since he took the helm of the Department of the Interior, has been conspicuously reclusive with the tribal nations he promised to represent...." The tribes also "criticized Zinke for ignoring multiple requests to meet with them and discuss Bears Ears."

During his visit, Zinke met with some tribal leaders for one to two hours but he spent the most of his time with monument opponents.

Murdock said the Access Fund offered Zinke the same consultation that the organization had provided for Sally Jewell, such as tours of climbing areas and explanations of the interests and values of the user group. "Zinke declined," Murdock said. He added that the current Secretary doesn't seem interested in hearing another view. "He has not had open meetings, he's blocked journalists, and avoided protestors. All these were things that...Jewell did not do."

Meanwhile, in mid-August, the Acting Director of the National Park Service Michael Reynolds quietly rescinded two items: a 2011 policy aimed at reducing and recycling disposable plastic water bottles in national parks, and Director's Order 100, known as "Resource Stewardship for the 21st Century," which was enacted in December 2016. According to an Access Fund news release, DO#100 provided "a framework for managing natural and cultural resources in our National Parks. It addressed climate change, engagement with Indigenous communities, and a new approach to addressing management problems by combining natural and cultural resource disciplines.... A brief memo from the DOI regarding DO#100 provided no explanation for the rescission."

Alpinist will continue to follow the developments of this story as more details emerge. A more in-depth background on the issues surrounding Bears Ears National Monument can be found here.

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