Southeastern Utah is known for its rock climbing, river rafting, hiking and camping, as well as cultural resources for Native American tribes with thousands of archaeological sites. The Bears Ears area—named for two tall buttes that resemble a bear’s head peeking over a ridge—is also a wonderland of buried fossils of dinosaurs, giant sloths, and other ancient extinct species, including many areas that remain to be excavated.
For more than two years, the Bears Ears National Monument has been a central point of contention over the Trump administration’s management of public lands and the recreationists, environmentalists and Native American tribes opposed to it.
The latest development is a dispute over a proposed Bears Ears monument management plan—released July 26, after the government spent $2.35 million preparing it—which comes as lawsuits continue challenging the president’s authority to drastically reduce national monuments created by his predecessors under the 1906 Antiquities Act.
“National monuments all over the country are supposed to benefit from increased protections, but not here at Bears Ears, not under this management plan,” said Josh Ewing, executive director of the Friends of Cedar Mesa nonprofit near Bears Ears in Bluff, Utah.
Though Bear Ears was established as a 1.35-million-acre monument by President Obama in late 2016, the Trump administration reduced the size to just over 200,000 acres less than a year later, precipitating a court fight over whether the president or Congress has the legal authority to make such drastic changes to monument lands. At the same time, efforts by the Department of the Interior to expedite environmental reviews such as the Bears Ears management plan have led to what critics say are incomplete proposals.
“If there’s a land use that requires a plan, the Trump administration is making them happen much faster, without doing a lot of the analysis or problem-solving involved,” Ewing said.
Critics say the current proposal is a waste of government money because they’re convinced Trump’s order will be overturned in court anyway. And when expedited plans such as the one for Bears Ears do come out, Ewing says, they’re littered with planning issues that “don’t solve the problems we need addressed now.”
Officials with the Utah branch of the Bureau of Land Management are more optimistic about their final proposal. The planning process included six public meetings, six months of public scoping and comment, and consultations with Native American tribes and other stakeholders.
“These plans will provide a blueprint to protect the awe-inspiring natural and cultural resources that make this monument nationally significant, while enhancing recreational opportunities and ensuring access to traditional uses,” Utah BLM Director Ed Roberson said in a news release July 26.
Critics say the proposed monument management plan delays or ignores crucial aspects of conservation planning in favor of development and exploring more uses for the land, such as livestock grazing.
“The whole plan is a disaster and doesn’t live up to the responsibilities of protecting the resources,” said the National Parks Conservation Association’s Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs.
BLM officials say the plan is carefully crafted. For instance, officials say, it prohibits target shooting at campgrounds, developed recreation sites, petroglyph sites and cultural sites such as cliff dwellings; off-highway vehicle usage would be limited to designated “roads, routes and trails.”
The plan also states that it will set a process for inventorying and protecting cultural resources, including Native American and potential fossil sites within the reduced boundaries of the monument. But Brengel said the government is dragging its feet on this, exposing the sites to potential ruin or plunder as a result.
Certain government research on those resources is restricted from public view, Brengel said, so it’s hard to say what and just how many sites need protection.
“There was acknowledgement from the previous administration, from people who can legally know what’s on the ground, there are a lot of objects of interest in this area,” Brengel said. “The fact they aren’t taking those steps before they’re allowing these other potentially harmful uses means they’re taking these requirements lightly.”
It could take two years to develop that cultural resources management plan for Bears Ears, according to the final proposal. At the same time, Brengel says the final proposal could delay recreation management planning—the process that conserves the natural and cultural elements of public lands while promoting sustainable visitor access on trails and campsites—up to five years.
Answering questions by email, Utah BLM officials said the estimated time frames for drafting implementation plans are intended to give officials flexibility depending on staff resources. They say agency officials are poised to begin that work once the final plan is approved.
Visitors have increased by the thousands in recent years, even before the original proclamation of the Bears Ears National Monument—good and bad news for those trying to protect it. Some conservationists say the few trails and campsites are being overused, which can damage the ostensibly preserved environments around them in a number of ways.
“Indian Creek, one of the world’s greatest climbing areas, has exceeded carrying capacity for current infrastructure, like climbing access trails, campgrounds, toilets,” said Erik Murdock, policy director for the Colorado-based Access Fund. “There can be erosion created from the sheer numbers of people. It’s not necessarily intentional, but the damages are to the natural and cultural resources.”
An exact count of visitors to the Bears Ears area is elusive, but Utah BLM annual visitor estimates by region indicate strong growth in the 1.8-million-acre swath of southeast Utah that includes Bears Ears. Visitor estimates grew from 267,000 in 2015 to more than 400,000 for each year since then, according to BLM documents.
In 2018, in business planning documents for that region, Utah BLM officials sought to build four new campgrounds and institute campsite fee increases to address “the growing expenses of the campground program, especially those for deferred maintenance, stemming from rapidly expanding use by the public.”
In September, Friends of Cedar Mesa opened its own Bears Ears educational center to help the growing number of visitors learn about and protect the region. More than 100 volunteers serve as ambassadors on popular trails, greeting visitors and educating them on the sites and how to reduce their impact, Ewing said.
Ewing, Murdock and Brengel’s associations are a few of the numerous groups joined in litigation against the Trump administration’s decision to reduce the size of both Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. Some plaintiffs, but not all, say no planning should take place under Trump’s order before the court has ruled on its legality.
“Having a final plan is a move that the administration is trying to use to help cement their illegal actions at Bears Ears,” said Murdock, who opposes the planning process altogether. “The plan needs to address the original boundaries.”
A Utah spokeswoman said the Bureau of Land Management does not comment on ongoing litigation. However, bureau documents in response to public comment on the Bears Ears planning process say it must move forward in compliance with the president’s executive order.
“BLM and USFS (U.S. Forest Service) decisions are regularly challenged in court, and, absent unusual circumstances or relief granted by a court, the BLM and USFS typically continue to implement them,” BLM officials wrote. Any future applicable court decisions will be addressed when they occur, they add.
Trump’s Bears Ears executive order led to at least three lawsuits, including Hopi Tribe v. Trump and The Wilderness Society v. Trump, which have been consolidated by a judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
“We have worked since time immemorial to uphold our sacred covenant to protect the land by serving as stewards of the Earth, and continue to do so today in opposing any efforts to abolish and reduce the Bears Ears National Monument,” Hopi Tribe vice chairman Clark Tenakhongva said in testimony before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee in March.
Plaintiffs allege only Congress has the authority to reduce the size of national monuments, while the White House points to past presidential administrations that have changed the size and boundaries of other national monuments as precedent. Some of the plaintiffs say the precedent set by those presidents was also unconstitutional.
The more than 1 million acres removed from the monument designation also have potential for oil and gas production, as well as uranium deposits. Critics of the Trump administration say private business interests swayed the decision to reduce the monument to just over 200,000 acres.
Few mining or drilling claims have been filed with the Bureau of Land Management on land formerly covered by the Obama executive order, according to a BLM spokeswoman. Some observers say it is unlikely to see an increase in claims on the land before the legal dispute is resolved.
Trump, at a rally in Salt Lake City in December 2017, said the decision was to “reverse federal overreach” and give local authorities more say in land management, a longstanding issue in the Western states, where most of the acreage managed by the Bureau of Land Management resides.
“These abuses of the Antiquities Act have not just threatened your local economies; they’ve threatened your very way of life,” Trump said.
But people on the ground like Ewing at Friends of Cedar Mesa say the administration turned Bears Ears into “a second class monument,” and the government isn't doing enough to protect it.
“It’s treating it like any other BLM area instead of a monument,” Ewing said. “All around the country conservation takes priority over other uses of the land, but not at Bears Ears.”
Editor’s note: REI has given $320,000 to the National Parks Conservation Association and $735,000 to the Access Fund over the years.