5 possible ramifications of Trump's decision to decrease size of Utah monuments

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer
January 15, 2018, 12:05:56 PM EST

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.

Donald Trump

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.

Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 12.59.58 AM.png

(Image via the Nature Conservancy)

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.

Ryan Zinke

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, right, talks with two men on horses Monday, May 8, 2017, at the Butler Wash trailhead within Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah. (AP Photo/Michelle Price)

"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.

Utah Federal Lands

A supporter of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments dances with a headdress during a rally Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

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.

Ryan Zinke, Gary Herbert

Utah state legislators and their staff lead the way for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and others in the distance Monday, May 8, 2017, through Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah. (AP Photo/Michelle Price)

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.

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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.

Obama National Monuments

The "House on Fire" ruins are shown in Mule Canyon, near Blanding, Utah. These Anasazi ruins are found along a canyon hiking path in a dry river bed. They are one of an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites within a 1.9-million acre area of Utah's red rock country that a coalition of American Indian tribes and environmentalists want President Barack Obama to designate as a national monument to ensure protections of lands considered sacred. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

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.


The Bureau of Land Management maps show high-to-moderate oil and gas development potential in much of the original Bears Ears footprint. (Image via Bureau of Land Management)

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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