Cuts to National Monuments Mostly Bringing Uncertainty

by Sean Vandehey

(Metate Arch in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument - photo by Brian W. Schaller)
In November leaked documents suggested that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s review of Federally managed national monuments would call for dramatic reductions to both the Bear-Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments in Utah, and that’s just the beginning of his report’s recommendations.  Zinke’s assignment from President Trump was to review any monuments over 100k acres created in the last 21 years (since Clinton’s second term, for those counting) and seek to counteract ‘abuses’ by the Federal Government against local land rights.  The initial results are the surprise downsizing of Obama’s newly created Bear-Ears monument by 85% and the Clinton era Grand Staircase monument by nearly half.
Proponents of the move cite a combination of federal overreach by Washington over the last few decades, unfairly restricting local economic potential in various natural resource industries, resulting in reduced opportunities for local residents.  To quote President Trump, “some people think that the natural resources should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington. And guess what: They’re wrong.”  Opponents meanwhile have declared the move a giveaway to the oil and mineral industries at the cost of priceless archaeological and scenic treasures, which will only serve to hamstring the changing tourism economy in the region.  
Bear-Ears was only created at the end of Obama’s second term and has barely begun the transformation from public to federally managed land.  But Grand Staircase Escalante, created in 1996 by President Clinton, has had twenty years to transition to a tourism economy, and locals have been divided all along on whether the loss of a proposed coal mine in the late 90s and the shutdown of a lumber processing facility in the 2008 recession have been sufficiently counteracted by 78 million in annual tourism revenue.  As well, there is debate over whether monument status accomplishes one of the intended goals of wilderness and archaeological preservation.  The existing infrastructure already struggles to protect the sites from misuse by civilians, and whether a cut in federal enforcement funding will be counteracted by a reduction in tourism due to the installation of oil and coal operations is anyone’s guess.
In any case, the transformation of both monuments into several, much smaller monuments, marks a significant shift in direction for the Department of Interior under the Trump Administration.  Three months after the initial reports of the change came out, how that new land management policy change will take shape remains uncertain.  The last drilling rig to operate within monument boundaries was plugged in 1992, and despite the Trump Administration’s friendly attitude towards the coal industry, locals will point out that even during the 70s coal boom the local deposits were deemed unprofitable to extract.  A series of impending court challenges to the legality of the president’s power to retract previously declared monument borders, paired with the already long lead time on setting up mineral extraction technology, means it could be years before the consequences of this decision, positive or negative, are clear.
A copy of Zinke’s memorandum to the President can be read here.  If you've ever visited one of the 129 national monuments in the US, imagine what changes these new policies might bring to future generations' ability to enjoy our natural and cultural heritage.  We recommend contacting your representatives to let them know how you feel about the administration's new policies.