It could be just a matter of time before Bears Ears National Monument’s boundaries are redrawn once again, depending on the outcome of ongoing litigation or congressional action.
For now, though, federal land managers are moving ahead with final plans to manage two separate units within the area that President Donald Trump reduced with the stroke of a pen in December 2017.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced last week that it is wrapping up the process to adopt management plans and an Environmental Impact Statement for the 201,000-acre monument in San Juan County.
“These plans will provide a blueprint to protect the awe-inspiring natural and cultural resources that make this monument nationally significant, while enhancing recreational opportunities and ensuring access to traditional uses,” BLM Utah State Director Ed Roberson said in a statement.
Former President Barack Obama used his powers under the federal Antiquities Act to designate a 1.35-million-acre monument in late December 2016 on existing public lands south of Moab. From south to north, the original monument stretched roughly from the outskirts of Goosenecks State Park to Dead Horse Point State Park near the Grand County line.
But just under one year later, Trump shrunk those boundaries down to the new configuration and created two separate units within the monument: the 129,980-acre Shash Jáa area west of Blanding that encompasses the namesake Bears Ears buttes, and the 71,896-acre Indian Creek area near Canyonlands National Park’s Needles District to the north.
The agency says its final proposal differs from its draft version with the inclusion of a new alternative that reflects comments from cooperating agencies, tribes, stakeholders, the public and a monument advisory committee.
“We appreciate everyone who took the time to provide meaningful comments, and our cooperating agency partners who have helped us incorporate the suggestions from local communities, stakeholders, the monument advisory committee, tribes, and the public into the plans,” BLM Canyon Country District Manager Lance Porter said.
According to the BLM, its preferred alternative would — generally speaking — rely on environmental reviews that have been completed for individual actions to determine appropriate uses and restrictions within the monument’s revised boundaries. However, additional reviews of proposed actions would be required to ensure consistency and compliance with overall management requirements, the agency said.
But Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) Legal Director Steve Bloch said his organization doesn’t believe that the agency took into account the monument’s unique landscapes and cultural resources, which hold special significance to five area tribes.
In addition to its famed cliff dwellings, the region is home to ancient roads, underground pit houses, villages and shrines, as well as old hogans, sweat lodges, tipi rings and rock art panels. Navajo, Ute, and Paiute travelers also used formalized trails to travel across the landscape seasonally for hunting and ceremonies, according to a Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition overview of the region.
“Unfortunately, it’s our assessment that for the most part, they’re managing these lands as if they were garden-variety public lands,” Bloch said.
Even if one took Trump at his word that the monument’s landscapes are spectacular and are home to irreplaceable cultural resources, Bloch said, the management plans don’t offer a blueprint to protect them.
“It’s a pretty sad state of affairs,” he said.
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, on the other hand, welcomes the administration’s plans to manage Bears Ears’ reduced footprint.
“I support it, and I don’t have any concerns,” he said.
Adams said he doesn’t believe that Trump’s latter proclamation affects the public’s use of the monument.
“I think people have been able to do what they’ve always done on the land,” he said.
Safeguards are already in place, Adams said, to ensure that archaeological and cultural resources are protected.
“I think the BLM has the tools to protect the cultural resources the way (the monument) exists right now,” he said.
It might come as a surprise to some, but Adams said he has received no feedback whatsoever on the proposed management plans or the final Environmental Impact Statement.
“I haven’t heard anything from anybody,” he said.
Nor has the related subject of congressional legislation to enlarge the monument come up in recent weeks, Adams said.
A proposal from Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Arizona, and Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, would not only reinstate Bears Ears’ original boundaries; it would expand them by an additional 500,000 acres or so, to reflect the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition’s original proposal for a 1.9-million-acre monument.
Given the political realities of divided government in Washington, D.C., right now, Adams doesn’t expect the bill’s authors to make any headway beyond the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I heard it has little chance of getting to the Senate, and I do not support it,” Adams said.
Bloch agrees that the bill is unlikely to move from the U.S. House to the other chamber of Congress as long as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, remains in charge there.
Still, he said he’s grateful to Gallego for introducing the legislation.
“I think that the bill is an important marker to state that a significant number of lawmakers believe that what Trump did was unlawful and needs to be undone,” Bloch said.
As is the case with other well-intentioned legislative bills, he said, its supporters are likely looking to the next Congress and a different administration to take action.
In the meantime, Bloch said that SUWA, area tribes and other plaintiffs are still in the midst of litigation that challenges Trump’s December 2017 proclamation. Right now, he said, the plaintiffs are waiting for a judge to issue a decision on the Trump administration’s motion to dismiss legal challenges of its proclamations to reduce the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
“There is no motion for an injunction in front of a judge, which is why this new plan (for Bears Ears) is rolling out,” Bloch said.
PLANNING WORK DATES BACK TO EARLY 2018
The BLM initiated its planning work in January 2018 to prepare the management plans for the monument, which the Manti-La Sal National Forest jointly manages.
Along with the U.S. Forest Service, BLM officials worked with cooperating agencies to develop and draft the management plans and Environmental Impact Statement, which they say reflect input from many stakeholders and the public. The agencies said they also provided extensive opportunities for public engagement, including six public meetings, nearly six months of public scoping and comment, government-to-government tribal consultation and coordination, working with cooperating agencies and stakeholders, and a monument advisory committee.
The proposed monument management plans and final Environmental Impact Statement, maps and supporting information are available online at: https:goo.gl/uLrEae. The BLM will finalize the monument management plans through signing and issuing a Record of Decision.
Under the final proposal, most of the monument remains open to hunting, fishing and recreational — or target — shooting. However, the proposed management plans include provisions that would not allow target shooting at specific locations, including campgrounds, developed recreation sites, petroglyphs and structural cultural resource sites such as cliff dwellings, on BLM-administered lands within the monument. These provisions do not apply to legal hunting activities.
In accordance with federal law, the BLM opened a 60-day public comment period on the proposed target shooting closure. The public will have 60 days from the date the notice of availability for the proposed monument management plans and final Environmental Impact Statement is published to review and provide comments specific to the proposed target shooting closure at campgrounds, developed recreation sites, petroglyph sites and structural cultural sites. Comments about target shooting may be submitted via email to: email@example.com, or via mail to: BLM, Canyon Country District Office, 82 E. Dogwood, Moab, UT 84532, Attn: Lance Porter.
Publication of the proposed management plans and final Environmental Impact Statement in the Federal Register initiates a 60-day review by the governor of Utah for consistency with state and local plans, policies and programs, and a 30-day protest period, which will be open through Aug. 26.
Instructions for filing a protest with the Director of the BLM can be found online at: www.blm.gov/filing-a-plan-protest.
For more information, contact Lance Porter at 435-259-2100.