Before he departed office in 2016, President Obama designated 1.35 million acres of Utah’s ruddled landscape as Bears Ears National Monument, granting it federal protection against oil and gas drilling, among other threats. On Monday, Trump is poised to undo his predecessor’s handiwork, with reports revealing his plans to slash the protected land by around 85 percent, plus 50 percent of the Clinton-designated Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Documents leaked to the Washington Post on Thursday solidify Trump’s long-held threat to revoke the lands’ status, though officials told the paper that changes could still be made ahead of the announcement on Monday. (Reached by Jezebel for comment, Department of the Interior spokesperson Heather Swift said only that “We will have more information available on Monday.” A spokesperson for Utah Governor Gary Herbert said the office does not comment on leaked documents, and will similarly release a statement on Monday.)
The purported cuts have been met with distress by tribal leaders, for whom much of the land is sacred. Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, vice-chair of Western Leaders Network and former co-chair of the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, told Jezebel that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made little effort to address the concerns of Native Americans, despite a perfunctory “listening tour” he embarked upon in May.
Instead, the Intertribal Coalition “had to fight” for an hourlong sit-down with Zinke in Salt Lake City, an experience Lopez-Whiteskunk described as a “total flipflop” from working with the department under Obama.
“It just seems like our voices have been ignored,” she said, adding that when Zinke visited the region, much of his time was spent in closed-door meetings with elected officials in favor of revoking the monuments’ protections. “If we’re trying to seek an objective view, then it would mean you open up to both sides of the issue fairly and in an equitable manner.”
But other stakeholders maintain that shrinking the monuments isn’t just detrimental from a spiritual standpoint, but an economic one as well. The ostensible reason for cutting the protected land is to open them up for natural resource extraction, including oil and gas drilling, coal mining and logging, among others. But Ashley Korenblat, the managing director of Public Land Solutions, a non-profit that focuses on promoting public lands as sources of recreation, argues that allowing the area to be used for industry will destroy its potential for other forms of revenue.
Say that instead of coal mining, a community works with the Bureau of Land Management to build a network of trails. When people come to hike and ride those trails—which, with visitor numbers soaring in recent years, seems likely—nearby communities will enjoy revivals, prompting the opening of businesses like bakeries and breweries. Before you know it, companies are looking to relocate there. Take, for example, Osprey Packs, which moved its base of operations to Cortez, Colorado after finding it would be a hospitable place to attract an outdoor-obsessed workforce.
“It’s one of the few places in the outdoor industry where you can get an entry level job at Osprey and still be able to afford to buy a house in Cortez,” Korenblat explained.
Public lands provide a high-quality of life, which attracts both visitors and businesses, she said, which can in turn supplement the economy and make it less dependent on the “roller coaster of worldwide commodity prices.”
But in order to attract those visitors and businesses, you “kind of need an achor tenant at the mall,” Korenblat says. “And the communities that have national parks have that anchor tenant.”
Like many aspects of the Trump administration, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the motivation behind culling the monuments isn’t in the best interest of working Americans. Peter Metcalf, the former president of Utah-based Black Diamond Equipment and a public lands advocate, theorized to Outside that the move could be part of a “quid pro quo” so that Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, would support the Republican tax bill.
But if the administration even wants to pretend that it’s looking out for the best interests of its constituents, advocates say it should consider the facts.
As Korenblat put it: “We’re not talking about turning back the clock and not having hot water.” Rather, she said she’d like to see the administration consider using the public lands in a way that will also preserve them, which will ultimately benefit the many communities who depend upon them.
“We’re not making any more land in its natural state—the antiquities out there are finite, and people want to experience them,” Korenblat said. “There’s an opportunity for the community near Bears Ears to become the Machu Picchu of North America.”