Op-Ed: Restore Utah’s national monuments and make the fix permanent
There’s a painful axiom in the conservation community: “To protect land, you have to win the same battle over and over again.”
The fight for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments has resumed. It never really ended.
When President Trump eviscerated these Utah preserves in December 2017, Grand Staircase had been a national monument for more than 20 years. Bears Ears was new, established by President Obama in 2016, and acclaimed as a historic gesture of healing and respect toward the five Native American nations that had proposed the preserve and would share in its management. Trump’s directive reduced the size of Bears Ears by 85%, Grand Staircase by half.
Joe Biden campaigned on the pledge to fully restore both monuments. He has already initiated the process, asking the Department of the Interior to review the boundaries and make recommendations.
And so here we are, once again called to speak on behalf of building cultural and environmental resilience in red rock country, to support and renew what were historic acts of conservation.
In a joint statement, Utah’s Republican congressional delegation, governor and legislative leaders predictably decried Biden’s plan for the monuments. They grumble that “land management actions have often been done to us rather than with us” in the “two-thirds of our backyard” that “belongs to the federal government.” The officials ask federal authorities to collaborate, to work with “state and local elected leaders toward a consensus product.”
That sounds reasonable, but the history of interactions with these officials belies their claim of good-faith collaboration. Their states-rights pro-extraction values preclude the deliberative give-and-take they now self-righteously request.
They are tragically consistent with their political forebears.
When Utah Gov. George Clyde pondered the slickrock spires in the then-proposed Canyonlands National Park in 1961, he rejected protection, saying, “We are a mining state. We might need this as building stone.”
When President Lyndon Johnson expanded Capitol Reef National Monument sixfold in 1969, the tiny neighboring town of Boulder, Utah, briefly changed its name to Johnson’s Folly.
When President Clinton proclaimed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996 without public hearings, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch called his action “the mother of all land grabs.”
And so President Obama took note. In 2016, he gave Utah citizens and state political and tribal leaders the chance to work out a just compromise for protecting public lands on the Colorado Plateau. Obama refrained from executive action until the last weeks of his administration, patiently waiting for success at the negotiating table. But when Utah officials continued to push for rampant fossil fuel extraction instead of conservation in the state’s southeast corner, the tribes walked away in protest.
Finally, Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate Bears Ears National Monument. Although monument status expanded protection only on federal land, leaving private land untouched, Utah officials nonetheless raised the familiar cry, declaring another land grab. (Grand Staircase’s monument designation likewise affected only federal lands.)
And here we go again.
Because Chris Stewart is my congressman, and Grand Staircase lies within his district, I’ll focus on this monument and this representative.
In a debate last fall, Stewart proclaimed, “The presumption of many is that the people in Utah are just too stupid or too ill-willed to manage their lands.” His much-criticized bill to create an Escalante Canyons National Park from fragments of the diminished Trump monument would grant local county commissioners management of federal lands.
But these lands have never been Utah’s to manage. Indigenous homelands first, then claimed by Spain and Mexico in turn, Utah’s public lands have been under the shared ownership of all Americans since 1847.
Stewart and his allies in the state simply do not believe in this fundamental fact. Instead, they consider Utah the rightful owner of U.S. public lands. These officials do not make fair partners in negotiating the future of the Colorado Plateau.
Biden has no real choice but to move on without them. When he does, he’ll find that the reasoning in the Clinton proclamation leading to Grand Staircase’s original size and shape remains sound.
Scientists drew the 1996 Grand Staircase boundaries carefully. They embraced a sufficient range of habitats, soils and biodiversity to allow for robust research on plant speciation and plant-community dynamics. The monument’s corridors for wildlife migration and dispersal create crucial connections to surrounding protected lands. The monument’s expansive size helps secure the long-term ecological health of the entire region.
The Clinton proclamation acknowledged “exemplary opportunities” for paleontological discovery. A generation of research has verified the monument’s promise, transforming our understanding of the Age of Dinosaurs.
And now we have additional imperatives to fully protect this landscape at scale.
The Colorado Plateau will experience hotter temperatures, more severe droughts and increased variability in precipitation through the 21st century. Grand Staircase’s size and biodiversity — it is the most species-rich protected area in Utah — may shield some plants and animals from the worst effects of climate change.
As extinction threatens ecosystems across the globe, “arks” such as Grand Staircase-Escalante may become the refuges from which species can spread to recolonize surrounding areas whose flora and fauna falter. By interlocking with other designated federal lands, from Bryce Canyon National Park to Bears Ears, a fully protected Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument will mitigate global warming, provide a carbon sink, protect watersheds, springs and seeps, and prevent wholesale extinctions.
Grand Staircase’s representative in Congress, Stewart, barely acknowledges climate change as real — he certainly does not acknowledge it as the existential threat it truly poses to humanity. He manages just a 3% lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters.
To advance conservation and address climate change, Biden has vowed to rely on science. Utah’s Republican elected leaders, with their commitment to extractive industries and their mistrust of “big” government, have other agendas. The president should not hesitate to restore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante by proclamation.
And, to put an end to an endless ping-pong of executive orders and court actions, Congress should then pass legislation confirming Biden’s actions for both monuments. Only by making Bears Ears and Grand Staircase impervious to any future president who might wish to reduce their size can we safeguard their future.
Stephen Trimble is a Utah writer and conservation advocate. His latest book is “The Capitol Reef Reader.”
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