Report: New monument an ecological treasure

Tower Ruin, located on southern Utah’s Cedar Mesa, is part of the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument. Cedar Mesa is home to more than 100,000 Native American archaeological and cultural sites. A report by researchers finds that Bears Ears has qualities that rival those of national parks, particularly when it comes to dark skies and the monument’s ecological connectivity and intactness.

As debate continues over the propriety of President Obama creating Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, a new report finds that the area rivals, and by some measures even exceeds, some national parks in terms of its conservation values.

The work by researchers with Conservation Science Partners, conducted on behalf of the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress policy institute, finds that Bears Ears particularly stands out when it comes to dark skies and its ecological connectivity and intactness.

“Among the significant findings was the monument’s exceptionally low levels of light pollution, suggesting that it is one of the most remote landscapes in the western U.S.,” Conservation Science Partners said on its website.

Kate Kelly, public lands director for the Center for American Progress, said in an email to the media, “We think the analysis is a pretty interesting way to understand (and quantify) just how valuable Bears Ears is — without even touching on its unparalleled cultural resources.”

Obama made use of the Antiquities Act in late December to designate 1.35 million acres as the new national monument. The area stretches from south of Moab to Mexican Hat, and from Blanding and Bluff west toward the Colorado River. It is renowned for its rock art and archeological sites and is considered sacred to Native American tribes.

The Center for American Progress report focuses on ecological rather than cultural aspects of the landscape, comparing Bears Ears to other western landscapes based on a number of ecological indicators.

“Bears Ears National Monument is one of the wildest and most ecologically valuable places in the West,” the center says in a news release on the report’s findings.

The researchers evaluated Bears Ears along with Arches, Canyonlands, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Canyon national parks, comparing all those areas to random areas of equivalent size in 11 Western states. For each indicator, they assigned the areas scores from one to 100, with 100 being highest.

Bears Ears got a 95.3 for night sky darkness, beating out all seven parks. It also scored in the 90s for ecological intactness and ecological connectivity, beating several of the other parks on both of those measures. Ecologically intact landscapes are ones having little or no influence from human activities, and ecological connectivity is important for natural processes such as species dispersal, migration and gene flow, the researchers say.

Bears Ears also fares well compared to some of the other parks when it comes to other indicators, including mammal and reptile diversity, and concentration of rare species. It has 18 species federally listed for protection as threatened or endangered, including the California condor, Mexican spotted owl and greenback cutthroat trout.

“Our results point to the highly distinctive nature and irreplaceable value of this area with respect to rare and endemic species, as well as the diverse habitats they depend on,” the researchers wrote in their report.

They said their findings highlight the need for special management of Bears Ears.

They said Bears Ears sits on significant mineral and oil and gas resources, which the Center for American Progress says makes it vulnerable to development if Congress or the Trump administration tries to roll back its protections.

“The confluence of Bears Ears’ superior ecological status and wealth of uranium and other natural deposits makes its protection as a national monument even more critical,” the center said in its news release.

The national monument designation is opposed by Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah’s congressional delegation and some local elected officials, including the San Juan County Commission. Bruce Adams, a county commissioner there, said the Antiquities Act is intended to protect objects with the smallest amount of land possible.

“I don’t believe the Antiquities Act was set up to protect dark skies, remoteness and sensitive species,” he said.

He said the land Obama designated for protection already had numerous layers of protection by the Bureau of Land Management. These include designations as wilderness study areas, natural areas, no-surface-occupancy areas, and safeguards of cultural resources and protections for wildlife habitat during fawning season, Adams said.

“I question what one more layer is going to protect, what it’s going to do.”

He doesn’t see any threat to the region’s abundant dark skies, and says the state hasn’t seen the potential for oil and gas and mineral development in the Bears Ears area.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance oil and gas organization, said the area “is prospective for oil and natural gas,” but the Center for American Progress and the environmental lobby in general falsely argue that protection of the land must stop any development.

“In reality, oil and natural gas development disturbs very little land, and is done in a way that’s protective of the environment. We can do both — develop the energy resources in the Bears Ears while still conserving the land,” she said.

Josh Ewing is executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a conservation group that advocates for an area now part of Bears Ears. His group had pushed the alternative approach of designating Bears Ears a national conservation area before ultimately backing the monument designation.

He said that from his standpoint, the area’s incredible scenery and rich cultural resources are enough reason to make it worth protecting.

“In my view it’s kind of icing on the cake that the other elements (analyzed in the new report) stack up well compared to national parks,” he said.

He thinks anyone who goes to national parks and Bears Ears will consider them the same kind of important places, and he is glad Bears Ears is getting protection of things such as its ecological connectivity.

Ewing also has done a bit of work on the issue of Bears Ears and light pollution and wasn’t surprised by the report’s finding in that regard.

“Large parts of Bears Ears are some of the darkest places on Earth,” he said.

NOTE: This story has been revised to more appropriately describe the Center for American Progress.


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