Recommendations to shrink national monuments draw mixed reactions
Monday was the 21st anniversary of the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, but monument supporter Nicole Croft was in a less-than-celebratory mood.
Croft was unhappily coming to terms with reports that a monument-review memo from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to the White House, leaked to the media, includes recommendations to reduce the monument’s size, along with that of the recently created Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.
“It seems that the entire review has been conducted in a very arbitrary and ambiguous process which these two monuments were specifically the target of,” said Croft, executive director of Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, a monument support organization.
San Juan County in southeastern Utah couldn’t have asked for much more of Zinke when it comes to his recommendation to shrink Bears Ears’ size.
“We were hoping for this to be the outcome” of the review process, said Bruce Adams, chairman of the county commission.
“We support very strongly what Secretary Zinke’s recommendations are,” he said.
While Zinke’s review has been much more far-reaching, the two Utah monuments have been particular flashpoints for both proponents and opponents of past presidential actions to create monuments. Much of that has to do with their size — 1.9 million acres for Grand Staircase-Escalante and 1.35 million acres for Bears Ears. Critics say the monument boundaries are larger than is necessary, while supporters say anything smaller wouldn’t adequately protect archaeological and other resources.
Presidents Clinton and Obama respectively created the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears monuments.
The Associated Press reported that Zinke worries in his memo that under current designations “traditional uses of the land such as grazing, timber production, mining, fishing, hunting, recreation and other cultural uses are unnecessarily restricted.” The Washington Post reported he recommends changes to how 10 monuments are managed, to allow traditional uses such as grazing, logging and coal mining now restricted in the boundaries.
“We’d like to see grazing remain and we’d like to see people able to gather wood — Native Americans able to gather wood and herbs for medicinal purposes,” Adams said. “We’d like to continue to see hunting, we’d like to see roads remain open for access for people to go out and recreate, just normal things that have been happening there for the last 50 years.”
When Obama announced the Bears Ears designation in December, the Interior Department said the designation maintained uses such as tribal collection of plants and firewood, off-highway vehicle recreation, hunting and fishing, and grazing.
“As always, the devil is in the details,” Adams said.
The Bears Ears designation doesn’t affect existing rights for oil, gas and mining operations but prohibits new mining claims and exploration and new mineral and oil and gas leases.
Croft contends grazing activity hasn’t been greatly reduced at Grand Staircase-Escalante, while Garfield County, Utah, Commissioner Leland Pollock has maintained the agricultural industry has been hurt by the designation.
Croft thinks Zinke, in his report, fails to acknowledge larger shifts in the agricultural market over the years.
“The way that our country utilizes its cattle and beef industry has radically changed in the past 21 years,” she said.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s office said Monday that the Department of Interior hasn’t provided it with specifics of Zinke’s recommendation and it won’t comment on the leaked documents. But it said it appreciated Zinke’s “thorough review of the recent use of the Antiquities Act in Utah.”
In August, the Republican governor said in a statement that he believes uses of that act in Utah to create monuments “exceed the narrow scope of the Act,” and he hopes Trump will “carefully study” recommendations by Zinke to narrow its application.
Adams rejects the idea that the monument designation at Bears Ears was needed to protect Native American cultural resources, saying those resources were already protected by federal law without the designation.
“There’s seven or eight layers of protection on the cultural resources. It’s not like all of the sudden somebody woke up and said we have to protect cultural resources,” he said.
While Zinke isn’t recommending any changes to monuments in Colorado, Colorado advocates of monument designations are closely following the review process as it applies to other states.
“It’s a true shame Trump’s team would rather benefit a few fossil fuel industry-insiders than valuing the history of diverse cultures, recreation spaces that bring billions of dollars to the American economy and the benefits of public lands for future generations,” Denver-based Sierra Club organizer Kim Pope said in a news release Monday.
Sarah Shrader, owner of Grand Junction-based Bonsai Design, which builds outdoor adventure courses, has been calling for recognition by Zinke and Trump of the economic value of monuments.
“It is disappointing to see that the Trump Administration is spending time on reducing the size of public lands when there are so many other important issues for rural America right now,” she said Monday. “Rural communities are suffering all over America and we need help from the federal government in ways that could help our communities rather than hurt them. How about helping us with infrastructure or broadband or helping us fund our crumbling schools?”
She said for the administration to reduce the size of monuments that are economic drivers in rural areas would be counterintuitive.
“It just doesn’t make any sense. Why would you spend time doing this when you could help us in other ways?”
Croft thinks Zinke’s recommendations show the monument review isn’t about local control, but is about catering to extractive industries and special interests, and she hopes Trump rejects the recommendations.
“Should he feel the Grand Staircase needs remedied, let’s take it to Congress, let’s have a vigorous and healthy and open debate. Unilateral action here is totally inappropriate and will be challenged in court.”