What national monument protections do

Some say the Bears Ears shrinkage won’t change anything — they’re wrong.

 

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s drastic shrinkage of the Bears Ears National Monument boundaries, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told his constituents in a Deseret News op-ed that they needn’t worry about looters or drillers plundering the place because several layers of protective laws already cover the federal land there. Besides, he wrote, “Mineral resources beneath Bears Ears are scarce. There is no developable oil and gas.”

These talking points probably originated with Jim Stiles, of the Canyon Country Zephyr, who has been railing against the monument for some time. But they have become common sound bites among the anti-monument crowd in general. The implication is that monument designation is meaningless when it comes to actual preservation, and is really no more than a marketing trick intended to attract industrial-grade recreation and boost the tourism and amenities economies of nearby towns. It protects nothing on the ground, and only draws more people — maybe even paved roads, parking lots and visitor centers — and therefore more damage.

These points are valid, but they are also flawed. To understand why, one only must travel about 145 miles southeast of Bears Ears monument, to the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico. It was there that, in 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt used the brand new Antiquities Act to designate Chaco Canyon National Monument, thus protecting several so-called great houses, including Pueblo Bonito, that were built between the 9th and 12th centuries and were being ravaged by unscrupulous “archaeologists.”

Mazes of roads lead to various well pads near Huerfano Mountain, part of the landscape that surrounds Chaco Canyon National Monument in New Mexico. Land designated as a national monument is protected from this kind of development.
Courtesy of EcoFlight

Roosevelt and his advisors didn’t know it, but his monument only included a small piece of a vast Chacoan world which extended all the way into Colorado and what is now known as the Bears Ears region of southeastern Utah. It was made up of dozens of Chacoan outliers, or great houses, along with thousands of smaller sites, shrines, “roads” and other architectural features with unknown functions. Today that world endures, a cultural tapestry woven together with the natural landscape.

Most of this landscape lies outside of the Chaco Culture National Historic Park, but on federal land, meaning it is protected by the same rules Herbert referred to, most notably Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. It requires developers of any sort of project to conduct a cultural inventory of the affected area. If any significant sites are found, the pipeline, road, or well pad must be rerouted accordingly.

The practice is known as “identify and avoid,” and it has generally worked to keep the bulldozers from scraping major sites, says Paul Reed, a longtime Chaco scholar, but it hasn’t done the same for surrounding features. Today, roads bisect villages, pipelines cut through ancient corn fields and well pads have obliterated many “other super subtle things going on that are part of understanding that landscape,” Reed says. “That’s how ancient landscapes get fragmented.”

“Even though agencies try to mitigate the impact, it isn’t enough because you’ve literally destroyed the context in which those things exist,” says Theresa Pasqual, former director of Acoma Pueblo’s Historic Preservation Office, and a descendant of the Pueblo people who occupied the Four Corners region for thousands of years. “Most of our pueblos are still transmitting their migration history through oral means. So when you have development that begins to impact many of these sites they are literally destroying the pages of the history book of the Pueblo people.”

A national monument, however, draws a line around not just the individual structures, but also the context that surrounds them, putting it off-limits to mining or drilling or new road building. It’s a far more holistic approach, intended to protect every piece of the cultural landscape, not just the major sites. The difference between lands within Chaco park and those outside is a stark one, and it’s startling to imagine what would have become of Pueblo Bonito and its surroundings had Roosevelt never acted.

Of course, Bears Ears is not the oil and gas hotspot that surrounds Chaco. At least not yet. As Herbert pointed out, there are no “developable” minerals in the Bears Ears. That is, the minerals are known to be there, it’s just that no one has figured out how to extract them profitably. That hasn’t stopped people from trying, or from doing damage. Just four years ago an oil company scraped a road and well pad and put up a drill rig on federal land on Cedar Mesa’s Cyclone Flats, just outside the Fish Creek Wilderness Study Area. The well apparently came up dry. That, however, does not mean the next one will be. The history of extraction in the West, after all, is one of commodity prices and innovation turning yesterday’s dry wells into today’s bonanzas.

An oil well on Cedar Mesa in 2014, which was dry and the federal lease was retired. This part of Cedar Mesa became part of Bears Ears National Monument, and was later removed from the boundaries in the reduction of the monument.
Josh Ewing/Friends of Cedar Mesa

Two decades ago oil companies weren’t even attempting to go after oil and gas in the Mancos, Bakken and Marcellus shale formations because it was not “developable.” Then high oil prices spurred the development of new techniques and technology, leading to one of the largest drilling booms in U.S. history. In 1955 President Dwight Eisenhower banned mining on Oak Flat in Arizona’s copper country. The mining companies didn’t complain because there were no developable minerals there. But now a multinational corporation, having wrested the land from federal control, plans to use robots to go after the giant, copper deposit buried more than 7,000 feet deep under the sacred Apache ground. It would be financial folly to go after the tar sands that underlie the spectacular White Canyon on the eastern edge of the pre-shrinkage Bears Ears National Monument today. But just give it 20 or 30 years, and $200-per-barrel oil, and that might change.

Besides, a monument does far more than just keep looters or drillers at bay. It gives federal land managers more leverage to limit visitation, to steer people away from the most sensitive sites, to ban or strictly regulate motorized and non-motorized recreation, to forbid mountain bike races and other competitive events, to keep BASE jumpers from launching themselves into Arch Canyon, and to stop “adventure guides” from leading dozens of paying clients through your favorite, no-longer-so-secret slot canyon. Of course all of that depends upon a strong management plan, which will now be crafted under a Trump administration, for whatever that’s worth.

  • This map shows the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument (BENM) and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) as of November 2017, prior to modifications made by the Trump administration. Parcels are color-coded with their land-ownership status.

  • The revisions to the National Monuments generally comprise splitting the original monuments into five smaller monuments. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments is split into three monuments, together covering only 53% of the original monument's area (Grand Staircase National Monument (GSNM), Kaiparowits National Monument (KNM) and Escalante Canyons National Monument (ECNM)). Bears Ears National Monument is split into two monuments, together covering only 16% of the original monument's area (Shash Jaa National Monument (SJNM) and Indian Creek National Monument (ICNM)).

  • There are thousands of oil and gas wells across the Colorado Plateau. There has been relatively little exploration in GSENM, with far more activity in the region in and around BENM. Although there is potential for significant oil and gas presence within both monuments, it is not immediately clear whether/how that potential played a role in their reshaping.

  • The Colorado Plateau is host to a number of coal seams that accumulated in vast swamps during the Cretaceous period. The coal seams in the Kaiparowits Plateau in GSENM present a well-known, untapped resource that could have influenced the shifting boundaries in that region. In the mid 1990s an effort to develop those coal resources at the Smokey Hollow mine (black square on map) was halted by bad economics and creation of GSENM. There is far less coal resource in BENM, but it is notable that an area of coal deposit was conspicuously left out of the original BENM boundary, just east of SJNM.

  • Southeastern Utah is home to a few formations that are known for occasional presence of uranium ore. In fact, the area was heavily mined in the mid-20th century as America worked to become a nuclear power. A swath of uranium districts and former and current uranium mines run across BENM and the new monuments generally avoid these uranium districts. Two of the only operating uranium mills in the country are located on either side of BENM.

So monuments do have tangible meaning, they do add another layer of on-the-ground protection against a variety of threats. But they are also symbolic. And former President Barack Obama’s designation of Bears Ears National Monument went a long ways in this respect, acknowledging that tribal nations do have some say over their ancestral homelands, and that they, too, should be involved in not only managing, but also interpreting those landscapes.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.