A case can be made that Bears Ears National Monument was, at 1.35 million acres, too large when it was designated by President Obama in 2016. We’re not saying we wholly buy that, but it can reasonably be argued that the acreage was larger than absolutely necessary for protecting the “objects of historic and scientific interest” contained within the landscape.
Likewise, it can be argued – and was, back in 1996 – that President Clinton went a bit far in setting aside 1.9 million acres as Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument.
But that doesn’t mean it was a good idea for President Trump to try to gut the two monuments, as he did with recent executive orders slashing Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase by half.
We say “try” because it is unclear whether presidents have the authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to undo monuments created by their predecessors. The act gives our chief executives the ability to designate monuments, but doesn’t specifically say they can un-designate them, a power normally reserved for Congress. Thus, Trump’s actions are certain to be challenged in court, and it will be up to judges to decide, probably years down the road, whether he acted within his legal authority.
In the meantime, these two monuments in southern Utah will be left in legal limbo.
But let’s assume for the moment that Trump acted within bounds and his executive orders will be ultimately upheld. That still doesn’t mean those orders were wise.
Undoing Bears Ears is not such a major operation since it was created quite recently and doesn’t even have a new management plan as a monument. This makes the drastic boundary revisions announced by Trump relatively easy to adopt. And while the changes won’t be popular with conservation groups nor the intertribal coalitions that support the larger monument, they’re a hit with many locals in the Bears Ears area.
However, ripping up Grand Staircase – a two-decade-old monument – makes far, far less sense. Businesses have grown up around the monument based on the tourism that it attracts. A management plan is in place. The monument and its trails are in place. Now, suddenly, Trump wants to tear it out of the ground like a 21-year-old tree, and uprooting it won’t be any easier to do.
His motivation, beyond simply pleasing his supporters in the rural West, seems to be opening up the Kaiparowits Plateau to coal-mining. Vast reserves of that fossil fuel sit beneath the plateau, and Trump is apparently eager to see them plumbed. In a day and age when thousands of people are losing jobs to robots and artificial intelligence (automation may force 70 million U.S. citizens out of their jobs in the next 13 years, according to the Washington Post) and to the so-called “retail apocalypse,” Trump’s nostalgic attachment to coalmining jobs is bizarre, but it’s apparently one of the keys of his economic-development strategy.
Beyond the impact to Grand Staircase, Trump’s actions could set a strange precedent. If presidents have the right to tear up 21-year-old monuments, where might that lead? Every president that comes into office could undo any or all of the monuments created by his predecessor(s). In this age of extreme partisanship and spitefulness, who’s to say that the next Democrat who gets into office – and there will be one, either in 2020 or 2024 – won’t undo a Republican’s monument? (Not one of Trump’s, of course, because Trump certainly will not designate any monuments larger than a few acres, if any. Conservation and preservation are not in his nature. But a Democrat could undo a monument established by one of the Bushes, or even Republican presidents long dead.)
This could launch a scenario under which a president proclaims a monument and the next un-does it, as in science fiction
stories where reality is constantly being changed, the rug constantly being pulled out from under our feet. (Remember Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Lathe of Heaven”?) What a nightmare this would prove for public-lands managers.
There are those who will say the answer is to weaken or throw out altogether the Antiquities Act. We don’t agree, but that decision is up to Congress. If the American public wants to eliminate the ability of presidents to grant special protection to certain lands, then it’s up to our lawmakers to implement such a change.
For that matter, there are folks who believe the West shouldn’t even have vast tracts of public land, that it all should be privatized (or turned over to the states, which is essentially the same thing, as the states will do anything for a dollar. Just look at Utah’s SITLA lands.). We understand the importance of private-property rights to the American citizenry, but we believe public lands also have a key role in our quality of life. Imagine the popular Sand Canyon trails, now part of a national monument in Montezuma County, in the hands of a private developer. It’s not a prospect we like to contemplate.
We believe the Antiquities Act should stand and any changes made to it should be modest. It might be acceptable to put an acreage limit on future national monuments, or a stricter standard to be met before a monument can be created.
But any such measures should be approached with caution. Presidents of both major political parties have employed the act throughout the past century to set aside large swaths of land and even water when Congress failed to act. The Grand Canyon began as a monument created by Teddy Roosevelt. President George W. Bush used the act to protect the enormous Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument in 2006, as well as several other monuments.
The Antiquities Act gives presidents the power to create, not to destroy. We believe the latter power should remain in the hands of Congress. If Bears Ears and Grand Staircase need to be undone, it’s our legislators who should do that – not a single man who might operate on petty impulses and whims.