In a leaked memo, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommends shrinking or modifying 10 national monuments.
The Valley of the Gods at the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. (Bureau of Land Management / Bob Wick, CC BY 2.0)
The Trump administration is considering shrinking 10 national monuments or reducing their protections, potentially endangering forests in the Pacific Northwest, canyons in the Southwest, and coral reefs in the South Pacific. The changes were recommended by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in a secret memo to the White House that was leaked earlier this week. Reducing the size of national monuments significantly—by hundreds of thousands to millions of acres—would be an unprecedented move.
A less-noticed, yet critical, aspect of Zinke’s proposal is his recommendation that President Trump alter the management plans that have long protected US monuments. Agencies currently administer these lands in accordance with the National Environment Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, and other laws. But Zinke writes that this process has become “restrictive and difficult to navigate,” and suggests that the president loosen the standards at his “discretion,” presumably so that fracking, mining, logging, drilling, and other industrial activities can occur on the lands.
Of all the sites targeted by Zinke, the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah has been the most controversial. President Obama designated the 1.35 million-acre area in 2016, after a years-long process led by Native American tribes and wilderness advocates. Many of those groups are prepared to take the Trump administration to court if it follows Zinke’s recommendations. “It’s odd that the first, and most prominent, monument attacked is the first and only one ever developed and proposed by Native Americans,” said Natalie Landreth, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund who is representing some of the tribes that co-manage Bears Ears. She continued, “The [administration] can expect an active, fulsome debate on this.”
Long recognized as one of America’s oldest historical sites, the area encompassing Bears Ears is where the Clovis people lived 13,000 years ago. The landscape holds 100,000 archaeological sites, most of which have never been charted. They include the astonishing cliff-side houses built by the Anasazi in the 1500s; prehistoric rock panels created in 500 BC; and geological formations from 200 million years ago. Bears Ears is a magnet for scientists, historians, and tourists the world over. This summer, people fished the clear, cold San Juan River. Hikers scrambled from the top of sculpted red rocks to canyon floors. ATV riders, hunters, campers, climbers, and other nature lovers enjoyed other parts of this wilderness. Even cattle grazing and limited oil development are allowed on the monument site, too. But in October, the National Trust For Historic Preservation named this area one of the most “endangered” historical sites in America, because of more than a century of looting.
To the five tribes whose people have lived here for millennia – and whose reservations border Bears Ears – this place is more than a playground: It’s their ancestral and spiritual home. “What the politicians are doing is violating what’s sacred to us,” said Alfred Lomahquahu Jr., vice chairman of the Hopi Tribal Council. “Look at the Washington Monument or Arlington National Cemetery.” Those federally protected spots are revered by many, and rightly so, he said. Take the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, considered holy by dozens of lawmakers in Utah. “Our holy, sacred ground happens to be the big landscape out here,” said Lomahquahu, gesturing toward Bears Ears. “But people don’t understand that. Not honoring Bears Ears is against our religion. And it’s racist,” he added.
“Our holy, sacred ground happens to be the big landscape out here. But people don’t understand that.”
Shortly after Zinke became interior secretary, he began a review—ordered by Trump—of more than two dozen national monuments, many of them in the West. One of his goals was to eliminate barriers to mining, oil, and logging development. Bears Ears, the newest and most contested of the monuments, became a target. During the public-comment period, 2.8 million people submitted comments that overwhelmingly supported preserving Bears Ears. According to the Center for Western Priorities, 88 percent of Utah residents wanted to maintain the monument too. But in May Zinke issued a skimpy, vaguely worded five-page report recommending the monument be cut significantly in size. Land experts who read Zinke’s report called it a blueprint for “operational chaos,” and a case of “stumblebummery.” It contained no maps, referred to no historic sites, and used no specific legislative language. “It doesn’t even explain what alleged problem this review is trying to solve,” said Arizona Representative Raúl Grijavla, the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee.
No US administration has ever attempted to shrink a national monument as drastically. “The entire process has been shrouded in secrecy,” said Randi Spivak of the Center for Biological Diversity. Tribes contend that the president lacks the authority to diminish or extinguish them; only Congress has that power. Although other presidents have made smaller changes to the boundaries of monuments, none of them were ever challenged in court.
As for Zinke’s proposal to alter the management plans, conservationists say any changes will need to go through the same legal and administration processes that created these plans in the first place. Zinke’s report said he wants to restore “traditional” uses to these areas, a definition that Spivak took issue with. “Zinke is actually promoting traditional abuses of our lands,” she said.
American Indians in the Southwest have been fighting to preserve this part of their homeland for decades. At various times in history, the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Uintah and Ouray Ute, and Zuni tribes have all called it their home. The Hopi lived there for thousands of years; their ancestors, the Anasazis, built the cliff palaces that cling to canyon walls. The Utes, for whom the state of Utah is named, arrived around 1400, followed a century or so later by the Navajo. These indigenous people built homes, planted crops, raised children, created artworks, practiced their religion, and buried their loved ones there.
As white settlers traveled east, the US government enacted policies that pushed the first Americans off their lands, including the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed non-Indians to seize land from Western Indian Nations. In the mid-19th century, Ute and Navajo families were force-marched to barren reservations. The Zuni and Hopi were spared that trauma, but only by moving to their current pueblos to the south and southeast. Then came the Mormon pioneers: In 1880, about 250 men, women, and children set out to tame what they called “unclaimed” land. The Mormons took title to land in southern Utah that native people had roamed for centuries, including what’s now called Bears Ears. Soon these and other non-Indian residents ran the remaining Native Americans out of their rural homes—often violently.
Tribal people returned to their religious sites and ancestral graves only to discover that the homesteaders had looted them. The destruction of indigenous sites in the Southwest was so appalling that when Republican President Theodore Roosevelt saw the plunder, he vowed to stop it. In 1906, Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, which allows the president to set aside “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” in need of protection.
But commercial looters continued to pillage the Bears Ears area. In response, in 2010 the five tribes created a grassroots organization called the Utah Diné Bikéyah. They worked with businesspeople, recreationists, tourist groups, preservationists, and others to form a plan to preserve about 2 million acres. Ultimately, they settled for 1.35 million acres, which President Obama proclaimed the Bears Ears National Monument.