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An intense and precedent-setting legal battle is ahead after President Donald Trump downsized Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments late last year.
Environmental groups and five Native American tribes, the Navajo Nation, Pueblo of Zuni, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Ute Indian have joined together for a lawsuit against the Trump administration.
They are charging that the president of the United States has no power to decrease the size of national monuments such as Bears Ears.
“The president’s actions go beyond simple boundary adjustments. This is a direct challenge to the purposes of the Antiquities Act itself,” Mark R. Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy told AccuWeather.
The Antiquities Act was established in 1906 to protect significant natural areas and cultural resources.
"The Antiquities Act will no longer be a reliable conservation tool, and every national monument that was established through the act can no longer be considered permanently protected,” Tercek said.
Trump, in remarks given at the Interior Department, characterized the creation of national monuments by former President Barack Obama as “an egregious abuse of power” and suggested the review could result in turning some federal lands, or monuments, back over to the states.
Land and bodies of water designated as monuments are already owned by the federal government; however, the national monument designation simply provides additional protections for these landscapes.
“I’ve spoken with many state and local leaders…who care very much about conserving land and are gravely concerned about this massive federal land grab,” Trump said. “And it’s gotten worse and worse and worse and now we’re going to free it up. It never should have happened. I am signing this order to end abuses and return control to the people.”
Here are five reasons why this is a concern to environmental groups and others:
The amount of protection will lessen
Shrinking Bears Ears from 1.35 million acres to 201,876 acres removes more than 1 million acres of land from national monument status and takes away more protection from the area.
Dividing a management unit into two smaller, independent monuments will create a patchwork of jurisdictions that is more difficult to manage and costlier for taxpayers.
Federal ownership and stewardship of public lands across the nation play a vital role in furthering conservation that serves both people and nature.
Disruption to ecosystems
National monuments across the country are home to incredibly diverse ecological, geological and cultural resources.
The Trump administration's new declarations specify they may allow for active "vegetation treatment" in both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
This has the potential to lead to a range of destructive activities meant to replace native plants with perennial grass cover, since it is no longer a maintained designation.
"National monument designations boost local economies, provide recreation opportunities, protect wildlife habitat and improve the health and well-being of the American people," Tercek said.
Cultural heritage, artifacts might be affected
The Native American tribes want to ensure their tribal members have access to those lands that hold spiritual significance.
Priceless cultural and archaeological sites in Bears Ears could potentially become vulnerable to looting and vandalism, as they were for years prior to monument designation.
Rock art, cliff dwellings, and other cultural sites are now outside the monument boundaries, leaving them to possibly become damaged without as much oversight.
Tribal artifacts and fossils could also be impacted.
The Bears Ears cultural landscape contains more than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites, making it one of the most significant archaeological areas in the U.S.
Lands could be overrun by vehicles
The land Trump took out of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments will remain public; however, it will no longer be protected from degradation.
Motorized vehicles will now be allowed on any road that existed prior to the establishment of the monuments. That may end up being hundreds of roads, including some terrain that may not appear to be a road.
It is possible to see large areas of open land overrun by vehicles now that the monument boundaries have been decreased.
Mining could occur in formerly protected lands
The reduction in size of the monuments could possibly allow for drilling and mining in and around Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
The drillers, miners and frackers who were shut out by previous presidential use of the Antiquities Act would possibly be able to drill again.
The Red Canyon area of Bears Ears is known for its Triassic Period fossils, and it also contains extensive uranium deposits.
It is unclear what exactly this will mean for the monument, but it's safe to say new management plans could potentially have long-lasting effects on the ecosystem, lands and cultural heritage.
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