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Five Things to Know About the Redrawn National Monuments

The president is reducing two massive National Monuments by millions of acres. Read the context behind the decision and what to expect going forward

Bears Ears National Monument (Bears Ears Coalition/Tim Peterson)
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On Monday, President Trump released presidential proclamations reducing the size of two National Monuments in southern Utah, cutting the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears monument by 85 percent and reducing the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante by roughly 50 percent.

Julie Turkewitz at The New York Times reports that the reductions signify the largest rollback of protected status in United States history. Here are five things to know about the context around the redrawn monuments and what to expect going forward:

A Native American Coalition Proposed Bears Ears National Monument

The main force behind the designation of Bear’s Ears was a coalition of Southwest tribal nations, including the Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Indian and Navajo Nation, whose massive reservation the monument borders. According to Keith Schneider at the L.A. Timesthe tribes had discussed the need for protection of the area's thousands of archaeological and sacred sites for years, but did not want to publicly advocate for a monument or other status out of fear of backlash. In 2010, however, the tribes began participating in talks about public lands; the proposal for Bears Ears National Monument is what came out of those talks in 2015. In 2016, President Obama made it a reality.

The tribes see the downsizing of the fledgling monument as a direct attack on their heritage. “They declared war on us today,” Shaun Chapoose, a member of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee tells Courtney Tanner at the Salt Lake Tribune. “If they think we’re not prepared to protect it, they’re kidding themselves.” 

Grand Staircase-Escalante Has Been Chronically Underfunded

When Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was established 21 years ago by President Bill Clinton, the biggest objections came from ranchers, many of whom had grazed some of the monument land for generations, reports Jodi Peterson at High Country News. However, since then, 96 percent of the monument has remained open to grazing, and an effort by conservation groups in the early 2000s to buy grazing permits was stopped. A long promised grazing plan never materialized. In other words, the monument didn't change much.

At the same time, Christopher Ketcham at HCN reports that the monument never lived up to its expectation to become the “Science Monument,” with a whole staff of archaeologists, paleontologists​, geologists and botanists studying and protecting the area. In 2001, the monument had 140 employees, with more than 70 individuals involved in science and a budget of $16 million, including a $1 million fund to support university research. As of 2016, that budget was reduced to $4 million and there is one scientist, a paleontologist on staff. “Just making it a national monument does not protect it,” Carolyn Shelton, a retired monument employee, tells Ketcham. “That’s the lesson. The funding has to be there."

The President's Authority to Declare National Monuments Is... Complicated 

In 1906, Congress passed a statute called the Antiquities Act, which, reports Tatiana Schlossberg at The New York Times, was designed to eliminate the illegal looting of Native American artifacts from archaeological sites. When it was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt that June, it gave him the authority to declare National Monuments on public land to protect cultural and natural resources from things like mining, energy exploration or looting.

According to the National Constitution Center, lawmakers generally favored the idea but also wanted to make sure the president didn’t have too much power, Robert Righter, a professor at the University of Texas, El Paso, wrote in a research paper first published in the Western Historical Quarterly, which has been reprinted on NPS.gov. To limit that power, lawmakers wrote that the monuments needed to be limited to “to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

That, of course, is subject to interpretation, and conservation-minded Roosevelt took advantage of the power to create the first 18 national monuments, which included Devil’s Tower and Mount Olympus National Monument (present-day Olympic National Park). The establishment of the Grand Canyon National Monument angered locals who wanted to log and mine the area and conservationists who wanted a stronger Congressional protections for the land, not some newfangled presidential declaration that might or might not hold up in court.

Since then, the controversy has continued as presidents declared roughly 130 new national monuments over the last 110 years. In recent decades, massive national monuments, including Grand Canyon-Parashant, Bears Ears, Papahānaumokuākea Marine and Grand Staircase have become political flashpoints. Opponents argue that these mega-monuments violate the “smallest area compatible” clause of the Antiquities Act. Proponents point out that National Monuments protect a range of archaeological, paleontological and sacred cultural sites.

These Aren’t the First Monuments to Be Hacked Up

While the latest proclamations are the largest and most extensive modifications to national monuments, they aren’t the first time a monument has been revoked or the boundaries changed. According to the National Park Service, since 1906 Congress has abolished 11 national monuments for various reasons. In some cases, it was found that the protected resource was better managed by another unit of government, like a state park. Other monuments were downgraded because there were better or more significant resources nearby. For instance, Castle Pinckney National Monument in Charleston Harbor protected a small fort that saw some action during the Civil War, but had an overall underwhelming history. It was overshadowed by nearby Fort Sumter and the monument status was revoked in 1956.

Presidents have also fiddled with monuments in the past, though they have never outright dissolved a monument. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, Olympic National Monument was cut in half by Woodrow Wilson before the area was declared a National Park in 1938. John F. Kennedy both added and subtracted acreage to Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. However, no large-scale changes have been made in recent decades.  

The Proclamations Are Going to Court

Several tribes and environmental groups have already indicated they will challenge the boundary changes in court. “The decision to reduce the size of the Monument is being made with no tribal consultation. The Navajo Nation will defend Bears Ears. The reduction in the size of the Monument leaves us no choice but to litigate this decision,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye says in a statement.

On Monday evening, reports Tanner of the Salt Lake Tribune, a group of ten environmental and wilderness groups—including the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, which, in a statement, points out "[s]cientifically important paleontological resources motivated the creation of both monuments,"—filed suit against the Trump administration and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke targeting the reductions at Grand Staircase. “No one will look back on this decision in 15, 25 or 50 years and say Trump did the right thing by protecting less of this magnificent place,” Steve Bloch, legal director for one of the plaintiffs the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, tells Tanner. Other lawsuits are expected to be filed throughout the week.

The lawsuits could be a watershed moment for the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the ability to create monuments, but does not set size limits or a process for revoking the monuments, though Congress has amended the act to ban any future creation or enlargement of national monuments in Wyoming and large monuments in Alaska. “[A] new chapter in the meaning of the (Antiquities) Act may be about to be written,” writes James Rasband at the Mineral Law Review. “Depending on how the courts choose to read congressional silence, which is always a tricky proposition, national monuments may prove to be less permanent than once envisioned.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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