Despite raging protests, the US President will announce his decision in Utah today
Bears Ears National Monument—which is over 1.35 million acres—and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which covers an area of 1.9 million acres, might be reduced to a fraction of their size, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post and The Associated Press. These newly declassified public lands would then be open to oil drilling and mining.
The decision has been taken as an affront to Native American heritage. On December 2, some 5000 people held a rally denouncing the decision. It was the largest demonstration for public land ever seen in Utah.
A US national monument is a protected area similar to a national park, designated through a Presidential proclamation. It falls under the Antiquities Act, where the President is granted discretion to protect historic landmarks. Two former Democrat Presidents issued the protection orders for the monuments in question – Barack Obama for Bears Ears in 2016 and Bill Clinton for Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996. If boundaries are adjusted as planned, the two sites will be split into five smaller protected areas.
The expected announcement is part of a chain of Obama-era environmental reversals seen throughout the current administration. President Trump started a review process this April to examine federal lands above 100,000 acres for development of extractive industries, after requests from Republican lawmakers.
The review was headed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose recommendation report is being used as the basis for Trump’s decision. “No President should use the authority under the Antiquities Act to restrict public access, prevent hunting and fishing, burden private land, or eliminate traditional land uses, unless such action is needed to protect the object," said Zinke in a supporting statement.
Neither the President nor Zinke have visited the monuments, despite multiple invitations from tribes. Nonetheless, Trump is to declare the changes at a rally in Salt Lake City. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and multiple conservation groups have vowed to sue the administration if the announcement is made, with the case likely to reach the Supreme Court.
“State and local officials, nearly all of whom are Republicans, fought the designation of Bears Ears as a national monument and lobbied the Trump administration to either rescind it altogether or scale it back significantly,” says the Washington Post.
Monumental Stakes at Play
Bears Ears has been called ‘one of the most significant cultural landscapes in the United States’ by the US Forest Service with over 100,000 archaeological sites present in the area. Ancient cliff dwellings, ceremonial sites, burial grounds, ancestral lands, rock art and carvings that go back a thousand years dot the red rock country. These sites are revered by the Navajo, Hopi, Uintah & Ouray Ute, Zuni and Ute Mountain Ute tribes.
Even today, they use the landscape to collect medicinal plants, firewood and other traditional materials. With the US having an unpleasant history of claiming and resettling Native American communities by force, shaving off a few thousand acres of these monuments would be a momentous decision deeply aggravating indigenous sentiments. It would be similar to changing American icons like the Statue of Liberty or the Grand Canyon, both of which the Antiquities Act protects.
“We ask for this simple honor to be given by the President and Secretary: do not alter or change our Proclamation,” said Utah Diné Bikéyah in a press release. It is a non-profit working to support tribes in the Bears Ears landscape. “What we are asking for is just a small acreage compared to what was taken away from us.”
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