White House to shrink Utah monuments

Citadel Ruin at Bears Ears National Monument (© Jeremy Marshall/Flickr Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: An update to this story: On December 4, 2017, Dr. M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International (CI), reacted to President Trump’s announcement to cut land from national monuments in Utah. 

U.S. President Donald Trump announced his plans to downsize Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, during his visit to the state on Monday.

Trump plans to cut Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and reduce Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument nearly by half, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. These reductions would shrink the overall size of Bears Ears from 1.35 million acres to 201,397 acres and Grand Staircase-Escalante from nearly 1.9 million acres to 997,490 acres.

The five tribes that make up the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — the Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and the Ute Indian Tribe — said that they plan to seek legal action to stop any changes from being made to the monuments.

Why does this matter?

Bears Ears National Monument is a protected area in southeast Utah established by President Barack Obama in 2016 that contains sacred tribal land and artifacts. Grand Staircase-Escalante, established in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, contains the largest land area of all U.S. national monuments.

In August, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recommended, among other actions, that the administration and Congress decrease both monuments and open up the lands to additional public activities. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, for example, encouraged Trump to consider allowing mining on Grand Staircase-Escalante, another possibility raised in Zinke’s report, according to The Washington Post. According to Zinke, former presidents went too far in recent decades in limiting commercial activities, such as grazing, logging, coal mining and commercial fishing in protected areas.

“When a conservation area is created, it is meant to be forever,” Sanjayan said. “Conservation International and our partners have supported the creation of nearly 1.5 billion acres around the world under a model of protection in perpetuity, because people everywhere benefit from all that nature provides. Today’s action by the Trump Administration fundamentally undermines America’s preeminent leadership in protected areas.”

When protected areas become unprotected

The downsizing of these monuments follows a broader pattern of PADDD events. PADDD, which stands for protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement, are events that make legal changes to protected area laws and regulations that relax the rules governing use of resources, shrink park boundaries or eliminate the protected area entirely. The biggest driver for this? The demand to use the land for industrial-scale resource extraction and development, including mining.

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To date, CI has documented 2,349 PADDD events in 57 countries. The land in  Yosemite National Park has been and broken up since 1905, which has altered the landscape and waterways.

“Even though places like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments protect vastly different resources and have their own unique histories,” said Rachel Golden Kroner, a Ph.D. student who has been studying PADDD events and Conservation International grantee. “The choices that the government makes now in terms of how we manage our land and what we decide to protect have continuing impacts.”

According to Mike Mascia, senior director for social science at Conservation International and the world’s leading expert on PADDD, the government’s move to downsize protected lands could result in a more disturbed and fragmented ecosystem in the U.S., which would reduce biodiversity, increased fire risk and reduce the quality of the habitats. It could also give other countries the moral license to take similar actions, removing critical protections for areas of key biodiversity around the world.

CI’s research suggests the need for national policies about PADDD that align with policies about the establishment of protected areas in the first place.

“The environmental legacy of rolling back these legal protections will likely be profound,” Mascia said, “especially given the critical importance of protecting lands and waters to conserve biodiversity, mitigate climate change and sustain the heritage of indigenous peoples.”

Morgan Lynch is a staff writer for CI.

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