Do National Monuments Prevent Opportunity or Uphold Continuity?

On December 4th, President Trump announced the size reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, two national monuments in Utah. As this is the most sizeable reduction of federally protected land in our nation’s history, the event has been met by both dissension and praise.

Bears Ears was previously protected by former President Obama’s 2016 decision to make the land a national monument, assuring the public that his “actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes.” Former President Clinton made Grand Staircase-Escalante a national monument in 1996. These presidents’ actions were protected by the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives the US President the authority to “create national monuments from federal lands to protect significant natural, cultural, or scientific features.” However, all of these national monument decisions received backlash, as Utah politicians argued that the presidents were abusing the Antiquities Act, which also states that federally protected monuments must be “confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management.”

Federal land ownership has consistently been a point of controversy, as people debate the federal government’s control and interaction with local governments. A careful balance must be maintained between freedom of local and cultural land use and environmental protection through the federal government. President Trump explained his decision to cut the size of the two national monuments by stating, “Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington. And guess what? They’re wrong.” Many people, including Utah locals, support Trump’s decision, arguing that the federal government overreaches its power and deprives local governments of necessary control and economic opportunity. San Juan county is one of the poorest in the state of Utah, and the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante robbed the county of much needed economic opportunities.

The federal government controls over two-thirds of Utah’s land, occupying millions of acres of desert landscapes which hold significance to nearby Native American tribes such as the Navajo, the Hopi, the Ute Mountain Ute, the Ute Indian Tribe, and the Zuni. Bears Ears is named after the two elevated rock formations which dominate the surrounding ecosystem. Over 100,000 archeological sites, such as graves, ceremonial grounds, and cliff habitations are protected by Bears Ears. The monument’s 1.35 million acres of land has been shrunk to 15% of its original size. Grand Staircase-Escalante, a four hour drive west of Bears Ears, is slightly larger than the state of Delaware, with 1.9 million acres of land characterized by a sculptured landscape of ridges, canyons, cliffs, and mountains. This monument has been reduced by about 50% to include 1 million acres of land divided into three zones. One lawsuit was filed on the evening of December 4th in defense of Grand Staircase by the Wilderness Society and nine other environmental groups. Ruling of this recent defense is pending.

In his address, Trump also stated that national monument designations “prevent Native Americans from having their rightful voice over the sacred land where they practice their most important ancestral and religious traditions.” While Bears Ears’ status as a national monument prevents looting and destruction of Native American sites, it does so by restricting traditional uses of the sites. As many Native American tribes assemble to protest and sue against this land reduction, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye objects to Trump, saying, “The decision to reduce the size of the Monument is being made with no tribal consultation. …The Bears Ears Monument is of critical importance, not only to the Navajo Nation but to many tribes in the region.”

Bears Ears’ national monument status also restricts development on its lands, including mining and drilling. Though many are concerned about lost environmental protection of the area, the Endangered Species Act and specific land-use plans already protect many unique species, such as the bighorn sheep, Kachina daisy, Utah night lizard, and Eucosma Navojoensis moth. Other areas of Bears Ears, President Trump says, are “not unique to the monument” or “of significant scientific or historic interest.” Dispute continues to encompass the environmental protection and Native American use of this land. Stripping national monuments of their status will not necessarily lead to reduced environmental preservation because of pre-existing protections. Matt Anderson of Sutherland Institute explains, “President Trump’s decision to reduce these monuments allows us to still protect those areas that need protection, while at the same time keeping the area open and accessible to locals who depend on this land for their daily lives.”

Many also argue that Trump’s actions abuse the power of the Antiquities Act. Though Presidents have reduced national monument boundaries before, US courts have never decided whether or not this action is a constitutional part of the President’s abilities. Some support Trump’s decision, saying he is simply exercising the opposite of the power to create a monument–the power to terminate it. For example, Todd Gaziano from the Pacific Legal Foundation and David Yoo of the University of California argued the Antiquity Act “implicitly also includes the power of reversal.”

Trump’s actions raise questions about the relationship between federal and local governments, and of the government and Native Americans. Does a local or federal government determine what is in the best interest of a community’s ecosystem and cultural heritage? How can local governments successfully uphold environmental and cultural preservation?