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Conservation News

The Government Just Finalized its Plan to Shrink Bears Ears

Environmentalists and native groups attack plans to open up former monument lands for drilling and mining.

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The Bureau of Land Management released its finalized plan for managing Bears Ears National Monument on Thursday, more than two years after the Trump administration shrank the the preserve to 15 percent of its former size.

The agency’s 284-page Record of Decision largely matched a preliminary version released last summer, laying out basic plans for protecting environmental and cultural resources inside the monument’s Shash Jáa and Indian Creek Units. 

The report is one of the last steps in the administration’s push to open up vast swaths of formerly-protected land to drilling, mining, and grazing around Bears Ears National Monument. Designated by President Barack Obama in December 2016, the preserve originally protected 1.35 million acres of sandstone canyons, buttes, and sagebrush desert, and contained thousands of sites of cultural significance to local tribes. From the beginning, the monument faced stiff opposition from Utah’s congressional delegation and Governor Gary Herbert. In 2017, following a review by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, the Trump administration announced plans to shrink the monument, sparking lawsuits from both Native groups and environmental advocates who claimed the president had overstepped his legal authority. (The lawsuits are currently ongoing.)

In a BLM press release, Herbert praised the administration’s “collaborative approach” to managing the monument.

“As the Antiquities Act itself states, and as I have reiterated for years, monuments should be as small as possible to protect artifacts and cultural resources,” Herbert said. “And they should not be created over the objections of local communities.” US Representative Rob Bishop echoed his sentiment, calling the original designation “politically-motivated” and accusing special interest groups of spreading “misinformation” around the monument.

Not quoted in the press release: The commissioners of San Juan County, where Bears Ears is located. Originally held up by Utah and the administration as an example of staunch local opposition to the monument, the commission reversed its stance on Bears Ears in 2018 after a federal court ruled that officials in the majority-Native county had violated residents’ constitutional rights by gerrymandering voting districts. In the special election that followed, pro-monument Navajo candidates won two out of the three seats on the commission. Last February, the commissioners began considering a resolution calling on the government to expand the monument to 1.9 million acres—even bigger than it was originally.

“Where my family and other families used to live is sacred,” county commissioner Kenneth Maryboy told Native-led advocacy group Utah Diné Bikéyah, of which he is a board member.

Conservation groups immediately attacked the BLM’s report. Heidi McIntosh, an attorney for Earthjustice, said the agency’s plans were built “on an unlawful foundation.”

“This headlong spree to open up monument lands to extractive industries and development is illegitimate, and could only be done by turning a blind eye to the law and flat out ignoring the Native American Tribes for whom Bears Ears is sacred,” she said.

Jesse Prentice-Dunn, the policy director for the Center for Western Priorities, said that the only sure result of the BLM’s report would be “a long drawn-out court fight to stop yet another unprecedented attack on America’s public lands.”

“When the administration solicited public comments, more than 99 percent of the 2.8 million Americans who responded opposed shrinking or eliminating national monuments,” he said in a press release. “Instead of listening to the public, the Interior Department spent more than $4.6 million to develop these unnecessary plans that will inevitably be invalidated.”

There were at least a few bright spots for public lands lovers in this week’s announcement. During a press call on Thursday, Assistant Interior Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Casey Hammond said that the agency had seen “very little real interest” in drilling or mining on the formerly protected lands so far. The BLM also withdrew plans to remove tens of thousands of acres of native vegetation in Grand Staircase in a companion plan released on Thursday.

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