Trump wrongly cut monuments central to our vision for public lands

 Trump wrongly cut monuments central to our vision for public lands
© Josh Ewing

After Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden More than 6 in 10 expect Trump to be reelected: poll MORE’s brief visit to Utah on Dec. 4, Patagonia’s home page declared, “The President stole your lands.” The outdoor company did not exaggerate. Trump’s proclamations whacked away at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, with no regard given to the careful deliberation in establishing their original boundaries.

He revoked protections for land rich in fossils and archaeological sites. He opened ecologically rich wildlands to extractive industries. And he broke yet another federal commitment to Native America at Bears Ears, the first national monument dedicated to Indian culture.


Utah congressmen introduced two bills the next day to codify the president’s executive orders. These bills would install local Utah county commissioners as managers at diminished monuments and at a newly created sham national park. They would transfer ownership of public lands to the state and would escalate Trump’s rejection of science-based conservation. Full of poison pills, the bills will never pass.


One aspect of this depressing mess has received little attention. National monuments like Grand Staircase and Bears Ears — managed by the Bureau of Land Management — have a different mission than national monuments or parks managed by the National Park Service. 

The Park Service has a challenging dual charge, conserving the land and providing for the enjoyment of the people. BLM land, defined as
“multiple-use” land, gives equal weight to many “judicious” uses of “diverse resources,” though this does not mean using every acre for every use. Recreation is dispersed, with little infrastructure. Conservation and science can flourish alongside hunting and livestock grazing. 

The full-sized Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments link national parks and national forests, from Bryce Canyon to Canyonlands. Connecting these preserves allows regional management on a scale first envisioned in the 1930s.

The unbroken expanses of protected areas form a buffer and matrix for wilderness, for ecologically sensitive springs, for Native sacred sites. Chopping them up in difficult-to-manage islands blocks wildlife migration. Transferring jurisdiction from trained scientists and public lands professionals to local politicians runs the risk of parochial and misguided decisions.

These BLM public lands have always been seen as the leftovers, mostly desert, unworthy of becoming a national forest, park or wildlife refuge. When President Clinton created Grand Staircase-Escalante from existing BLM land in 1996, his Interior Department, led by Secretary Bruce Babbitt surprised folks who assumed the new monument would go to the National Park Service. Babbitt and his team wanted to allow these exceptional public lands to remain with the Bureau of Land Management.

Grand Staircase became the seed for a new system of protected lands in America. Each new large national monument proclaimed on BLM land since Grand Staircase stayed with the BLM and remained in multiple-use.

These 27 national monuments have become the core units of what we now call the National Conservation Lands System, acknowledged in a 2009 law as a permanent part of the public trust. Managers long focused on grazing and fossil fuel extraction have been asked to modernize and broaden the agency’s culture to include conservation and restoration.

These monuments are not “land grabs.” They were BLM public lands before designation and they remain BLM public lands after designation. Grazing, hunting, and valid existing mineral rights continue — unlike national parks. The proclamation for each monument says so, and these proclamations are law.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInternational hunting council disbands amid litigation Europe deepens energy dependence on Russia Overnight Energy: House Science Committee hits EPA with subpoenas | California sues EPA over Trump revoking emissions waiver | Interior disbands board that floated privatization at national parks MORE has targeted two additional National Conservation Lands for reduction. Cascade-Siskiyou on the Oregon-California border is a hotspot of biodiversity and climate change research. And Gold Butte, with phenomenal rock art and Paiute cultural sites is Nevada’s “piece of the Grand Canyon.” As in Utah, Zinke disdains the resources highlighted by these monument proclamations.

Let’s honor the vision behind these large-scale preserves. Just as Wallace Stegner famously described national parks as “America’s best idea,” our system of BLM national monuments just might be Bruce Babbitt’s best idea.

As national parks grow ever more crowded, we’ll need to protect the open spaces of surrounding BLM lands to preserve our opportunities for exploration and self-discovery, for a sense of the frontier, for discoveries by scientists to questions we haven’t yet asked.

Few places remain with the wild integrity of southern Utah’s redrock canyon country. After the lawsuits play out that surely will find Trump in violation of the law in his heedless downsizing of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, we’ll need to heal the rifts left by the chaos triggered by the president. Let’s start thinking now about how we can regain the conservation momentum we’ve lost. 

Stephen Trimble serves on the board of Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, the “friends” organization for the monument. His most recent book is Red Rock Stories: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands.