Shrinking Bears Ears is an Attack on our Public Lands

“The immensity of man’s power to destroy imposes a responsibility to preserve.” U.S. Congressman John F. Lacey, House Committee on the Public Lands Chair (1901) 

In early December, President Trump announced that he was sharply reducing the size of two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase – Escalante. It was the largest rollback of federal land protection in the nation’s history. This decision is being cited by some as a paradigm shift in the land conservation movement.

We at Committee for Green Foothills typically focus our energies locally, and and as an organization don’t get involved in national issues. But we felt this was an exception. This decision will have huge impacts on both the fate of these national monuments as well as that of all public lands. It was too important to brush aside. That is why we did something a bit different this year, and asked our members to speak up against this decision. We also thought we’d share a bit more about the history of this issue.

In the late 1800s, archaeologists realized that historical sites in the Southwest were being plundered and the artifacts disappearing into private collections or overseas museums. Congressman John F. Lacey, Chair of the House Committee on Public Lands, worked with archaeologists to create protections for “…landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest….”   The Antiquities Act, passed in 1906, authorizes the president to single-handedly designate any federal public lands as national monuments based around the idea of land as having “historic or scientific” interest.

“Sec. 2. That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments…”

The brief act — it’s only four paragraphs long —has since been interpreted to give presidents the power to set aside parcels of federal land of unlimited size and to restrict logging, hunting, grazing and mining on these sites.

Overall, the Antiquities Act grants the president the authority to create national monuments, but not to rescind or reduce them. Furthermore, the president can make national monuments only from land already controlled by the federal government, and the act generally does not change how the land is used. If leases for mining, ranching, drilling or logging already exist on land to be made into a national monument, the leases can continue, but new leases probably won’t be allowed.

Since 1906, 13 presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have used the authority of the Antiquities Act to proclaim 125 national monuments covering nearly 100 million acres of federal public lands.

This unilateral power in the Executive Branch has created fierce political brawls with the Legislative Branch and the states it has impacted. Presidents’ unilateral use of the act has often been challenged as a circumvention of democratic processes; states have opposed the creation of national monuments within their borders, as designations can potentially limit economic possibilities like mining and mineral leasing on the land. To counter this argument, it needs to be noted that protected open spaces often boost recreation and tourism.

Currently, there are eight reported court cases pending around these questions that deal with Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. There are five Native American tribes bringing a suit out of concern over the disregard for cultural resources, the outdoor recreation industry’s suit deals with economic ramifications, while environmental groups efforts are focusing on conservation of fragile and limited resources.

Many of these cases are based around prior legal precedent that does not grant the President the authority to shrink national monuments, or to revoke a monument designation. Such absence suggests that the power to shrink monuments therefore lies with Congress.

As the various court cases wind their way through the judicial branch, the Trump Administration has 25 other national monuments in its crosshairs, with Cascade-Siskiyou and Gold Butte National Monuments next on the chopping block.

The Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante court cases’ outcomes will decide the future of multiple national monuments, and the decisions will impact future land conservation efforts, and how the land is managed. We are committed to protecting public lands for the benefit of all people. We’ll continue to keep you updated as this issue moves forward.

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