BLM management plan threatens Bears Ears National Monument while lawsuits continue

Posted on: February 13, 2020

Climbing in Bears Ears National Monument, Ute (Nuu-agha-tuvu-pu) and Pueblo Territories. [Photo] courtesy of Ben Crawford/Access FundClimbing in Bears Ears National Monument, Ute (Nuu-agha-tuvu-pu) and Pueblo Territories. [Photo] Courtesy of Ben Crawford/Access Fund

This year—2020—is anticipated to be the year for the long-awaited court ruling as to whether President Donald Trump's reduction of Bears Ears National Monument in December 2017 was legal. There appears to be some hope for the people in favor of reinstating the former boundaries of the 1.35 million acre monument. But as the legal battle plays out, the Trump Administration has ordered the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to push ahead with a management plan for the greatly reduced monument.


Access Fund, a climbing advocacy group, contends that the finalized plan was rushed, "highly flawed...only covers 15 percent of the original Bears Ears National Monument landscape, and it fails the climbing community, the environment and Native American tribes." (More about that below.)

A February 6 Washington Post article about the plan reported that Kimberly Finch, communications director for BLM Utah, indicated that "the BLM has received 15 mining claims on lands excluded from [Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments] since their boundaries were redrawn...[and] the new management plan allows for even more mining and drilling, though Finch said that the bureau hasn't gotten many requests for mineral development on those lands."

Lockhart Basin is one of the areas no longer included in the two smaller national monuments that replaced the former Bears Ears Monument. [Photo] Tim Peterson, courtesy of Bears Ears Inter-Tribal CoalitionLockhart Basin is one of the areas no longer included in the two smaller national monuments that replaced the former Bears Ears Monument. [Photo] Tim Peterson, courtesy of Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition

In the meantime, many co-plaintiffs have been working through the courts to reinstate the original monuments before all that is allowed to happen.

Immediately following Trump's decision in 2017, numerous advocacy groups and at least five Native American tribes filed lawsuits challenging the administration's reductions. All those plaintiffs are grouped into three separate lawsuits, referred to as "pods," and are being heard simultaneously. Each plaintiff and each pod has autonomy even though the cases are being heard together, meaning the decision of one plaintiff won't necessarily affect the cases for the others. The tribes are grouped within their own pod.

Access Fund—which shares a pod with seven other co-plaintiffs, including the Utah Dine Bikeyah, an advocacy group for some of the tribes—recently announced that their pod "moved to win the case, filing a motion for partial summary judgment," on January 9.

"We have a really good chance [of winning]," Access Fund Policy Director Erik Murdock told Alpinist on January 29 during the Outdoor Retailer convention in Denver, Colorado.

Access Fund announced in a January 24 press release, "After many months of procedural battles—all of which we've won—Access Fund and its co-plaintiffs have now taken an offensive position.... On January 9, [the co-plaintiffs filed] a motion for partial summary judgment. The motion asserts that President Trump lacked legal authority under the U.S. Constitution and the Antiquities Act to revoke the designation of Bears Ears National Monument. That power is reserved by Congress. If the court agrees on this point, Bears Ears could be restored."

[Image] Courtesy of the Access Fund[Image] Courtesy of the Access Fund

It's worth noting that the lawsuits are suing the offices of the president, the interior secretary and others—not Trump and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke et al specifically. Thus, if the suit is decided in favor of the plaintiffs, whomever holds those positions will have to answer to the court's decision. But a new president could potentially reverse Trump's decision and the suit would be absolved. (Access Fund's lawsuit, including its co-plaintiffs and defendants, can be found here.)

On February 6, the Access Fund announced in a press release:

The Bureau of Land Management just issued a Record of Decision, finalizing its highly flawed Monument Management Plan for Bears Ears. The management plan only covers 15 percent of the original Bears Ears National Monument landscape, and it fails the climbing community, the environment, and Native American Tribes.

The BLM rushed the development of this plan in an attempt to cement President Trump's unlawful 2017 executive order to reduce the monument by 85 percent. Access Fund is engaged in an ongoing lawsuit, arguing that it was illegal for President Trump to reduce the national monument. Access Fund believes this issue should [have been] settled in court before BLM wasted taxpayer dollars on an incomplete management plan. Nonetheless, Access Fund engaged in the BLM's premature planning process to protect climbing and ensure the situation did not go from bad to worse.

The newly finalized monument management plan postpones the development of a recreation management strategy for another five years. This delay is a recipe for disaster, as it fails to protect cultural resources and traditional values, putting them in the path of irreparable damage.

"This management plan ignores 85 percent of Bears Ears National Monument. For the rest, BLM has kicked the can down the road and put off critical resource management decisions that are needed now to protect the values that led to the monument designation in the first place," says Chris Winter, Executive Director at Access Fund.

Bears Ears National Monument attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year from across the globe to enjoy its world-class rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, and motorized recreation. These recreation opportunities must be preserved, however they must also be carefully managed so they don't impact other national monument values.

The Bears Ears landscape is sacred to at least five Native American Tribes, and it is rich in cultural resources and traditional values that must be protected. This management plan does not do enough to protect the cultural, traditional, ecological, and recreational resources that are so special and unique to the Bears Ears landscape.

A comprehensive overview of the events surrounding Bears Ears National Monument, and the tribes that have been most affected—the Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain and Zuni tribes—can be found here.

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