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Good news and bad news for public land, and an in-depth look at the politics surrounding Bears Ears National Monument

Posted on: April 7, 2017


Nathan Martinez and Steve Dilk sit atop North Six Shooter in Indian Creek, Utah, in 2013. The area is now included in Bears Ears National Monument. Canyonlands National Park is in the background. [Photo] Derek FranzNathan Martinez and Steve Dilk sit atop North Six Shooter in Indian Creek, Utah, in 2013. The area is now included in Bears Ears National Monument. Canyonlands National Park is in the background. [Photo] Derek Franz

April is likely to be a pivotal month for looming questions about the future of Bears Ears National Monument. The monument includes world-class climbing areas such as Indian Creek, and its fate will be indicative of how national parks and monuments might fare in the future. For those who are in favor of the new monument, there is good news and bad news.

Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante and other national monuments appear to be secure for the time being in spite of Utah lawmakers' efforts to have President Donald Trump rescind or reduce them—which is not to say rescission can't happen; only that the law currently protects these designations. An outpouring of letters and phone calls to government representatives appears to be making a difference as well, according to the Access Fund.

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"The Access Fund alone generated thousands of letters to Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke," said Access Fund Policy Directory Erik Murdock on March 9. "We're seeing more interest in policy than ever before. We used to get about 500 responses to an action alert and now we get more than 5,000.... I think gravity is sinking in [for the Trump administration] that they're going to have a serious fight on their hands if they undo or modify monuments."

That's the good news for monument supporters.

The bad news is that on March 27 Trump signed HJ Res. 44, which repeals the Bureau of Land Management's "Planning Rule 2.0" or "BLM 2.0" using the Congressional Review Act. BLM 2.0 expanded the scope and opportunity for public input and was supposed to be a way to modernize the agency's long-outdated system for reviewing public land matters.

An excerpt from a February 8 Access Fund letter opposing the effort to scrap BLM 2.0 reads: BLM 2.0 is an essential planning tool because it mandates that all stakeholders have multiple opportunities to present their case, submit comments, and collaborate with the agency and other stakeholders. This planning process is the mechanism through which much of Access Fund's work happens—it guarantees us a seat at the table where we advocate on behalf of the climbing community for the best possible conditions and management procedures that align with climbers' core values.

Repealing BLM 2.0 will turn back the clock to the BLM's antiquated planning process—minimizing stakeholder input on 264 million acres of public land. Climbers will lose our guaranteed seat at the table, and Access Fund's ability to maintain access to and improve hundreds of climbing areas on BLM lands will be compromised.

Around 10 percent of our climbing areas are on BLM lands. Without BLM 2.0, decisions (including those concerning development, extraction, and access) will be made faster and without extensive input from climbers, conservationists, or any other stakeholder. This will result in more decisions that are made in haste, likely in favor of commercial uses of our public lands. While Access Fund is absolutely not opposed to responsible grazing and mining, we also want a permanent seat at the table to advocate for climbing.

Because the Planning Rule was killed through the Congressional Review Act, it can never be reintroduced.

Another piece of bad news for those in favor of conserving public lands is that Trump's proposed budget for 2018 cuts 12 percent ($1.5 billion) from the Department of Interior and emphasizes energy development. The DOI manages the country's "federal land," including national parks, monuments and BLM land—all public land—and the department has already been grappling to handle increasing demand with fewer resources for years.

Trump recently donated his first salary paycheck of $78,333 to the national parks, which will be earmarked for preservation of national battlefields. But the president's paycheck won't go very far toward helping the DOI cover the shortfall in the proposed budget. A National Public Radio article quoted Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke saying, "We're about $229 million behind in deferred maintenance on our battlefields alone."

Congress will ultimately approve or change Trump's proposed budget.

"Public land management by the federal government is very under-funded," said Josh Ewing, the executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting public lands in Utah, including Bears Ears. "There have been more visitors to the area with the designation of the new monument but not corresponding resources to manage and protect the area from the impacts. We're urging people to 'visit with respect.' It's not a playground. It's a great place to enjoy recreating but we have to go above and beyond with Leave No Trace ethics."

Steve Dilk follows Pitch 2 of Lightning Bolt Cracks (5.11-, 300') on North Six Shooter, 2013. [Photo] Derek FranzSteve Dilk follows Pitch 2 of Lightning Bolt Cracks (5.11-, 300') on North Six Shooter, 2013. [Photo] Derek Franz

Zinke's promise in limbo

Before Zinke was confirmed as the new interior secretary on March 1, he promised to visit Utah as his first order of business. He rode in on a horse for his first day on the job but he has yet to deliver on his vow for a swift resolution on Bears Ears.

"The previous administration did their due diligence," said Access Fund's Erik Murdock. "Like Trump realizing that changing the health care system is difficult, I think they are also realizing that they have their work cut out for them with Bears Ears.... It's becoming more apparent that the Bears Ears designation is a product of a transparent process that has included many opportunities for stakeholder input over the course of several years."

Murdock said Utah's resolution to shrink Grand Staircase is not new, as the Utah delegation has opposed the national monument since its inception.

"Not long after President Bill Clinton designated it in 1996, Congress passed legislation to expand it by a hair," he said, pointing out that the Congressional action added legitimacy to Clinton's designation. "It's very augured in there and will be very difficult to undo."

Debate about the balance of local and national interests

Several years ago, Utah formed a government office dedicated to outdoor recreation. "The Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation was created by Gov. Gary Herbert in 2013 and was the first of its kind. Washington and Colorado have since followed suit," said Office Director Tom Adams, who took over from the original director, Brad Petersen, about a year ago.

Adams was previously a sales director for Petzl and remains a lifelong climber who has done first ascents of 5.14 routes. He is still known to climb 5.13 off the couch and is also a competitive cyclist. He says he is well aware of Utah's treasure of outdoor opportunities.

"Our mission is to ensure Utahans have healthy, active lives," he said. "By maintaining, improving and preserving access to these things it also creates a draw for tourists.... We are one of the only states to have a recreation grant.... We took $1 million and leveraged it to $6 million in projects."

Some of that money was invested in climbing areas, such as building and maintaining access trails. "And remember that this all goes through committee, it's not just because I'm a climber that the money is going into these projects," he said.

Adams said his office has become a conduit between legislators and user groups. "The reports keep saying that Utah wants to 'take over' federal land—that's not accurate," he said. "Utah doesn't want to take over all the federal lands and have them handled by the state. That's been one of the biggest misconceptions. Utah is not trying to take federal lands. Right now the state is just looking at Bears Ears.... State leaders have discussed rescinding the Bears Ears monument designation, but with a plan in place to protect and manage the land."

The Utah government is proposing that the state could take on more management responsibilities of federal land such as Bears Ears, and would be able to customize land management with more attentiveness to local needs, Adams said, but the federal government as the primary landholder would still have final approval of state decisions.

If the Bears Ears monument is rescinded, the land would revert to its previous status, for now—which was mostly BLM land and some National Forest land. Meanwhile, however, Utah legislators, especially Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, have a history of laying the groundwork to make it easier to transfer federal land to the states. On January 3, the US House passed a new rule that removes the requirement for the government to evaluate the cost of such transfers, and instead assumes they would carry no cost to taxpayers. (In other words, the land's value to the public would not be considered.) Chaffetz also reintroduced HR 622 on January 23, a bill that aims to "terminate the law enforcement functions of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and to provide block grants to States for the enforcement of Federal law on Federal land under the jurisdiction of these agencies, and for other purposes." That bill remains in play. Chaffetz had initially reintroduced HR 621 as well, which directed "the Secretary of the Interior to sell certain Federal lands in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming, previously identified as suitable for disposal, and for other purposes," but he withdrew the bill after receiving overwhelming public pressure.

Opponents to the monuments have said the designations were made without sensitivity to the impact on the nearby communities who might depend on the land for jobs. A statement from a website arguing against the Bears Ears monument reads: "San Juan County currently contains all or part of one national park, three national monuments, a national recreation area and a national forest. Yet it is the poorest county in the state of Utah and one of the most economically depressed counties in the entire nation. Healthy economies rely on a host of activities to drive them, and tourism alone is not the answer to San Juan County's economic woes."

"I can understand why these people would be upset," Murdock said. "They don't want a president designating monuments that they believe aren't helping them.... People in Kanab and across southern Utah are still bitter about Grand Staircase."

In December 2016 interview with Alpinist, Access Fund Executive Director Brady Robinson said, "To create a vision for the future of public land management and conservation that can be shared with, rather than imposed upon, rural communities, we're going to have to learn to talk to and understand each other."

Looking east from the summit of North Six Shooter provides a glimpse of the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. South Six Shooter is in the foreground and Bridger Jack Butte and pinnacles are in the middle ground. The Abajo Mountains are in the background to the right and the La Sal Mountains are just out of view to the left. [Photo] Derek FranzLooking east from the summit of North Six Shooter provides a glimpse of the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. South Six Shooter is in the foreground and Bridger Jack Butte and pinnacles are in the middle ground. The Abajo Mountains are in the background to the right and the La Sal Mountains are just out of view to the left. [Photo] Derek Franz

Ewing—who lived in Salt Lake City for many years until he moved to Bluff, where he eventually heeded requests to take the helm for Friends of Cedar Mesa in 2014—is concerned about the idea of Utah managing these lands. He is leery of Utah's environmental track record, pointing to wildlife habitat restoration projects as an example.

"Wildlife habitat restoration projects are white-washed as 'conservation projects' but quite a few have entailed clear-cutting with a bull hog [similar to bulldozer/front-loader] to create grazing habitat for deer and elk that ultimately ends up benefitting cattle," he said. "There's a history of that. If that's the extent of their conservation work, I hate to think of what they'd do with Bears Ears."

The Public Land Initiative is a large-scale (seven counties) land management proposal that Utah lawmakers drafted in response to the Bears Ears initiative as their preferred land management plan for eastern Utah.

The PLI was introduced in July 2016. It calls for broader state control that includes "State-Federal land exchanges" and rights to "RS 2477 roads," which are contentious because some of these "roads" only exist as lines on a map and have not been driven in half a century or more, according to Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Proponents say the PLI addresses local needs, offering a friendlier stance toward the possibility of accommodating more industrial uses, mining and ranching, while still protecting important areas, such as Bears Ears, which would become a "natural conservation area" under the PLI.

Critics of the PLI say it promotes fossil fuel development and motorized recreation while restricting the national government's ability to preserve natural and cultural resources, and that it also makes it much more difficult to set aside other areas for protection in the future. One obvious difference from the Bears Ears monument is that a proposed map of the PLI shows that more land in the Bears Ears region would be open for industrial uses, which are already taking place within the borders of the monument.

"In 2014 a gas well was drilled right inside the boundary of what is now Bears Ears," Ewing said.

There are other existing leases for drilling inside Bears Ears that will remain valid because they were issued prior to the monument's designation. No new leases will be issued, however, if the monument designation remains.

"I'd like to take Governor Herbert at his word that the land will be protected, but...there is far too much threat against the place at the moment to say it's safe," Ewing said.

Native Americans are a local community struggling to be heard

Bears Ears is too new to say exactly what its local impact will be, but one of the largest communities and user groups of the area that has struggled for a voice in the matter is that of the Native American tribes. The tribes use and depend on the land in ways most users do not. And the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a large and diverse group of tribes, is in favor of having the monument. The Bears Ears Coalition consists of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe (as listed on the coalition's website). The coalition also has the backing of 30 other tribes that have "ancestral, historical and contemporary ties to Bears Ears" as well as the National Congress of American Indians, which represents 270 tribes across the country, according to bearearscoalition.org and utahdinebikeyah.org.

In 2010 the Utah Dine Bikeyah (UDB), a Native American group, had started the movement to protect what is now Bears Ears National Monument. Founding member Mark Maryboy said that since the start of 2017 all seven chapter houses with a stake in the monument now support it. A chapter house is similar to what a county would be to a state. Last year there was one chapter house president who opposed the monument, but the New Year brought a change in leadership, and the legality of the matter was also cleared up by the Navajo Nation attorney general, Maryboy said.

On the other hand, San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally is a Navajo (and Democrat) who is among the most vocal opponents to the monument (San Juan County is the district most affected by Bears Ears). In one speech she addresses Obama: "This is a place...where [Native Americans] gather medicinal plants, wood to heat their home and cook, hunt—you're taking that away..."

Maryboy countered that one of the reasons many tribal members are so supportive of the monument is precisely because those rights will not be taken away. Obama specifically guaranteed the protection of Native American rights to continue their traditional use of the land in his proclamation:

Traditions of hunting, fishing, gathering, and wood cutting are still practiced by tribal members, as is collection of medicinal and ceremonial plants, edible herbs, and materials for crafting items like baskets and footwear. The traditional ecological knowledge amassed by the Native Americans whose ancestors inhabited this region, passed down from generation to generation, offers critical insight into the historic and scientific significance of the area. Such knowledge is, itself, a resource to be protected and used in understanding and managing this landscape sustainably for generations to come.... The Secretaries shall, to the maximum extent permitted by law and in consultation with Indian tribes, ensure the protection of Indian sacred sites and traditional cultural properties in the monument and provide access by members of Indian tribes for traditional cultural and customary uses, consistent with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (42 U.S.C. 1996) and Executive Order 13007 of May 24, 1996 (Indian Sacred Sites), including collection of medicines, berries and other vegetation, forest products, and firewood for personal noncommercial use in a manner consistent with the care and management of the objects identified above.

"What we're asking for is something that benefits everybody and the Earth," Maryboy said. "We must do everything we can to protect [Bears Ears].... So we're reaching out to everybody—all races—to stand with us.... This is now a world issue because the US president designated it as a national monument."

The legal case for Bears Ears Monument

One factor that gives the monument a strong legal standing is that Obama did a very good job demonstrating that the designation fit the intent of the Antiquities Act, Murdock said.

The Antiquities Act states: "That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments...."

Another factor that gives Bears Ears better legal standing is that Obama waited for Congress before he designated the monument.

"President Obama gave Congress every chance to pass a bill," Murdock said. "The House never voted on Bears Ears protections despite the president repeatedly asking them to do so. Obama waited for Congress to adjourn before he designated these monuments because he needed every bit of cover to make the monument appeal to as many people as possible in southeast Utah."

The monument designation came after years of gathering information and public comments, Murdock added, as part of a transparent process that showed consideration for many stakeholder group's concerns; and thus, he thinks, it won't be easy to rescind.

Nonetheless, the conflict over the monument is only one indicator of how shifting government policies could affect the nation's land, environment and outdoor recreation.

"It's going to be a tough fight to protect public lands," Murdock said. "It's obvious there are going to be losses and we've seen them already. But we're going to keep fighting. Eventually the pendulum will come back to the center."

Looking to the near future, Murdock said to pay attention to when Zinke visits Utah, which he anticipates will be sometime this month, and whom Zinke meets with while he's there. The tribes have made it clear that they are open, willing and hopeful to work with the new Secretary of Interior.

"The Bears Ears Commission has formed and they are ready to meet with the agencies," Gavin Noyes, executive director of the Utah Dine Bikeyah, said April 4.

Adams' statements seem to indicate a belief in the possibility of dialogue between dissenting groups. "The Public Land Initiative has a lot of common ground [with the monument]—there are differences but there is some overlap that can be a starting point," he said.

In the meantime, Murdock expressed concern that Trump might make a decision about rescinding the monument before Zinke has a chance to make a recommendation. He said it's important to remember: "There are things people can do to engage on this issue. Letters mean something. Phone calls mean something."

Previous Alpinist stories related to Bears Ears are here and here.

Ryan Franz nears the top of Rim Shot (5.11-, 400') on Bridger Jack Butte in Indian Creek, 2015. South and North Six Shooters are in the background. [Photo] Derek FranzRyan Franz nears the top of Rim Shot (5.11-, 400') on Bridger Jack Butte in Indian Creek, 2015. South and North Six Shooters are in the background. [Photo] Derek Franz

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