Add.: Now that the alterations discussed below have become law (however, we hope, temporary) it is worth paying close attention to the reactions. Patagonia blacking out their webpage and declaring “The President Stole Your Land” is a satisfying bold statement, but companies on the REI side of the line don’t really have much to loose by saying so, just as they didn’t have much to loose by decamping OR to Denver after Patagonia and a few others had pushed the pendulum far enough. The extent to which they’ll follow that up with action will be more telling. The hook and bullet side has been more interesting. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers blasted the Trump administration with the headline “Administration Chops National Monuments, Panders to Energy Industry, Ignores Will of American People.” BHA has been accused of being the most lefty of the hunting conservation organizations, fairly or not, and they’re the leaders in the public lands conversation. Other hunting companies, such as Kifaru, Sitka, and even First Lite, have thus far been silent.
2017 has been full enough that I can only take it in part, and Bears Ears National Monument has in its short life been a large piece of a year I’m struggling to sum up. We were on the east coast when the long-rumored announcement was finally made late last December, close to DC, visiting places like Mount Vernon and the Lincoln Memorial, and easily able due to context and a week of quiet to contemplate what had just happened, and what would likely follow. We returned to our then home on the Colorado Plateau, and spent the next four months making almost weekly visits to Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and the surrounding places which ought to be included in the overall conversation. Since then it has been a slow march to arrive at where we are today, a process whose pauses and dread mirror that which led up to the designation of Bears Ears a year ago.
Apparently, tomorrow, we can expect a radical remapping and reduction of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. I had far greater ambitions for this post, but the prospect of the reduction is upsetting enough that I really can’t think about it well. So you’ll have some resources and scattered thoughts below, instead.
Dan Ransom put together the above map of just what the proposed reductions would mean for Grand Staircase-Escalante, and details what would be left out. The possibility of an improved Hole-in-the-Rock road, with a state park at the end, boggles the mind. The constituent fact of southern Utah wilderness is that it is riven with roads, but the combination of how poor most of those road are with how rugged the small spaces between them is keeps things wild. Partitioning Grand Staircase-Escalante follows the RS 2477 debacle as the latest outbreak of this societal disease. What is the proper role of federal public lands in our 21st century republic?
The first step in answering this could be deciding the proper scope of the Antiquities Act. In the leaked summary of his investigation, Secretary Zinke wrote “The responsibility of protecting America’s public lands and unique antiquities should not be taken lightly; nor should the authority and the power granted to a President under the Act…The executive power under the Act is not a substitute for a lack of congressional action on protective land designations.” All drama aside I believe most of us wish that this could be true today. There is a checkered history of legislative action on public lands in the last few decades. Things like the Rocky Mountain Heritage Act give one hope. The persistent inaction in Utah, and the Wilderness Study Areas which have been in limbo since the 70s, do not. I don’t think there is much question over tourism and recreation being the only long-term solution to how most non-urbanized places in the American west will make their living. Either directly, via the service industry, or indirectly, by local and regional public lands making otherwise isolated and somewhat backwards small cities (like the one in which I live) more attractive for individuals and businesses. The Antiquities Act has played a not insignificant part in keeping this possibility alive over the past century. While the threats to recent monuments like Bears Ears and Gold Butte are real, the argument is not primarily about substance, it is about ideology. So while it is possible to wish that President Obama could have moved legislation to designate Bears Ears et al, ignoring the impossibility of this and the harm which would have taken place is simply not acceptable.
Trumps revocation and reshaping could well be a principled stand, but it seems more likely to be a matter of political expedience, and of political retribution. So, can he legally do this?
This article, from 2004, details the quite limited legal precedent surrounding review of the Antiquities Act, concluding among other things that there is no useful precedent for determining whether the attempt to shrink or do away with Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is legal. This article, from September of this year, details each contraction, deletion, and alteration done to a National Monument by presidential proclamation. It concludes quiet baldly that no substantive precedent exists for what the Trump administration contemplates, at least in scale. And back in May Politifact concluded that no firm precedent exists, with strong opinions on both sides of the question.
The Antiquities Act has always had problems, and the way in which Trump and his administration are bringing it to a head is no different than all the other ways in which he is highlighting contradictions long dormant in our society and government. Our best and only hope is that Trump himself will pass on to the shadows sooner, and leave in his wake newfound motivation to confront and manage that which we have avoided for so long.