What Trump’s Shrinking of National Monuments Actually Means

The president announced reductions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, but the actual picture on the ground remains highly uncertain.

A sunrise flight over Valley of the Gods in Bear's Ears National Monument, Utah, provides a look at the landscape.
The Grand Gulch Primitive Area in Bears Ears, Utah, is expected to be removed from the monument boundaries under President Trump's Executive Order.
Bears Ears was created in part to protect many sacred and historical sites, such as this procession panel on Comb Ridge. The site may show an ancient community from around A.D. 760–800.
A group of all Native workers from the South West Conservation Corps shore up a dangerously eroded ruin in one of the Cave Towers in Bears Ears.
A hiker thinks twice before attempting to climb down old Moki steps once used to access the ruins now called the Eagle's Nest in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah. The ruins are anywhere from 800 to 2,000 years old. Moki steps can be found all over the American Southwest and were carved by the Ancient Pueblo Peoples and other related cultures.
This "traffic jam" outside the monument in Moab, Utah, was seen at "rush hour" on a trail called Cliff Hanger. Opponents of the Bears Ears National Monument often say they don't want similar hordes of tourists in their area.
Unnamed Ancestral Puebloan granary in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah. By 1300 AD, Ancestral Puebloans had vanished from the area.
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Editor's note: President Trump's December decision to scale back two national monuments in Utah took effect on February 2. Bears Ears National Monument has been reduced to 16 percent, and Grand Staircase-Escalante to a little over half of its original size. As legal challenges to the decision make their way through the courts, portions of the land that were excised from the monument by the Trump administration will again be open to claims under the General Mining Law of 1872. Though the interest in doing so remains unclear at this time. This story was first published on December 4 and updated with this note on February 2.

In a speech delivered in Salt Lake City on December 4, President Trump announced his intention to sharply reduce two Utah national monuments established by his predecessors.

In a move presaged by leaked government documents, Trump announced that he would reduce the 1.35-million acre Bears Ears National Monument, created by President Barack Obama in late 2016, by 85 percent. The president also said he would cut the 1.88-million acre Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996, nearly in half. (See maps of the monuments under recent review.)

“Some people think that the natural resources should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington,” Trump said at Utah’s domed State Capitol. “And guess what: They’re wrong.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rides a horse in the Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah. At the request of President Trump, Zinke conducted a review of 27 national monuments created over the past few decades and recommended that some be shrunk.

The reductions are the culmination of a wide-ranging Interior Department review of recent monument designations and a highly symbolic salvo in a larger campaign to reverse Obama-era public land policies. The Trump administration’s recent edicts—opening new mineral and oil and gas leasing opportunities in protected lands, easing drilling regulations, and rolling back habitat protections for endangered species—have met with furious opposition from conservation groups, outdoor tourism advocates, and Democratic lawmakers.

None, however, have generated as much public outrage as the monuments review. Last summer, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke traveled across the western United States visiting monuments targeted for potential reduction. Monday’s order has made some of his recommendations official.

What’s next for the two monuments? First up: litigation. The 1906 Antiquities Act gives presidents broad discretion to protect “historic landmarks … and other objects of historic or scientific interest,” without any input from Congress. There is no language in the law, however, granting presidents the power to rescind or cut them. Presidents have made minor adjustments to monument boundaries and one major reduction: in 1915, Woodrow Wilson reduced Mount Olympus National Monument almost by half. None of those excisions have occurred in the last 50 years, however, and none have ever been tested in court.

This protest at the state capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah, was held on Saturday, December 2nd. It was organized by 15 organizations and led by representatives from the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group of five Native American tribes that lobbied for the creation of the Bears Ears monument. The Utah Highway Patrol estimated 5,000 in attendance.

That is about to change. “We’ve got the documents ready to file,” says University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson, who serves as advisor to the coalition of five Indian nations that petitioned for the creation of the Bears Ears monument. Conservation groups have also prepared to file suit to protect Grand Staircase Escalante, and it is likely that the monuments’ fate will be tied up in court for many months to come.

What Happens Next

We shouldn’t expect a big transformation at Bears Ears, at least initially. Created in the waning days of the Obama administration, all changes were put on hold pending Secretary Zinke’s review. The Bureau of Land Management manages the land and its footprint has always been light: until last year only one full-time law enforcement ranger oversaw the massive acreage, which descends from the pine forests and high meadows of Elk Ridge and the Bears Ears, twin buttes held sacred by local tribes, through fissured sandstone canyon systems and piñon-juniper desert notched with bladed ridges and packed with ancestral Pueblo artifacts.

With Trump’s reductions, some of that land will now be open, again, to mineral and oil-and-gas extraction—but both sides agree that we’re unlikely to see drilling rigs inside monument boundaries anytime soon. The last producing well within the Obama-monument boundaries was drilled in 1984, according to Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas & Mining, and plugged in 1992. There are lucrative oil and gas fields on the monument’s northern and southeastern boundaries, but terrain within the boundaries is rugged, remote, and archeologically sensitive.

“Oil and gas plays are not economically viable now,” says Josh Ewing, executive director of local nonprofit conservation group Friends of Cedar Mesa. But, he adds, “they could be in the future.”

Bears Ears: See America’s Sacred and Stunning New National Monument

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, a zealous opponent of monument designation, agrees with this assessment. “I suspect there’s potential,” he says. “I would like to know there’s the ability to speculate on energy in that area.”

Threats Facing Bears Ears

The biggest threat to Bears Ears in the immediate future, says Ewing, is visiting tourists. For many years, the area’s very remoteness protected its rich archeology. There are more than 100,000 ancestral Puebloan sites—cliff dwellings tucked into mineral-streaked sandstone alcoves, kivas, great houses, room blocks, ancient roads—encompassing millions of potsherds, petroglyphs, textiles, animal and human remains, sandals, grinding stones, 800-year-old corn cobs. But the era of geotagging and image searches has altered that balance: “What the Internet did was take the images and the beauty and incredible archaeology and put it out there for people,” Ewing says.

His organization estimates that visits to the area tripled between 2005 and 2015, doubled again in 2016, and doubled yet again in the first half of 2017, as the battle over the monument put Bears Ears in the news. As visitation has risen, so has the damage: tourists pocketing potsherds, campers using century-old Navajo hogans for firewood; graffiti on ancient rock panels; all-terrain vehicles blasting through ancestral burial grounds.

“The strategy of leaving it alone and trying to keep it a secret is an unsustainable option for protecting the land,” says Ewing.

Local opponents of the monument also agree that visitation is a problem. “I don’t think you’ll talk to anyone in San Juan County who believes it doesn’t need more protection,” says Nicole Perkins, a librarian in the gateway town of Blanding who has helped lead local opposition to the monument.

But many locals oppose relying on what they see as the heavy hand of the federal government to resolve it. The feds, says Lyman, “have become very much the enemy,” and monument designation only strengthens the federal regulatory grip. “They need to leave San Juan County, not own San Juan County.” The cuts to the monument, however, are unlikely to send either the BLM or the visitors away.

The Grand Staircase-Escalante monument takes its name from a series of plateaus extending over nearly 1.9 million acres that descend like stair-steps from Bryce Canyon in southwestern Utah to the Grand Canyon.

In the absence of resources, Friends of Cedar Mesa has embarked on private fundraising efforts to build a visitor’s center and work with the BLM on a campaign to encourage visitors to tread carefully near sensitive ruins. “We’ve created a monster where everybody wants to see the place, but we’re losing financial support from the government,” says backcountry guide Vaughn Hadenfeldt. “I think we’ll win the legal battle in the end, but the cultural resources are going to suffer incredibly in the meantime.”

Grand Staircase Escalante

The calculus is different at Grand Staircase Escalante, which has been managed as a monument for 21 years. People point to the changes there as both inspiration and cautionary tale. In the years since the monument was designated, the area’s breathtaking geological spectacle— knife-edged ridges, sleek white domes, lush valleys, and cloud-shaped rock formations—has lured increasing numbers of visitors. Tourism now brings $78 million annually to nearby counties.

But some locals argue that the monument has hurt the area’s overall economy. After the monument’s designation in 1996, the government bought out the leases for a proposed coal mine on the Kaiparowits Plateau—an arid, stony mesa above the town of Escalante, rich in both fossil fuel and paleontological treasures—and a planned coal mine never opened. A lumber mill that processed timber logged from the nearby National Forest also closed in 2009 during the financial crisis; critics argue that the environmental scrutiny that came with monument designation made it too difficult to operate.

“The natural resource jobs went away,” says Drew Parkin, a resource manager who once worked at the monument but is now a vocal opponent. “In an environment like this tourism jobs can’t take their place: full-time jobs, with benefits, year-round.” When the tourists leave in winter, the only restaurant open in the town of Escalante is a Subway. Local school enrollment has dropped nearly by half; young families have left.

Supporters of the monument argue that the decline in extraction jobs and school enrollment reflect larger trends in rural towns everywhere. It is not that there aren’t jobs, they say, but that the nature of the jobs has changed.

“I could name ten businesses someone could start tomorrow that would thrive here,” says Blake Spalding, who co-owns Hell’s Backbone Grill, a busy restaurant in the gateway town of Boulder. Her restaurant and 6.5-acre organic farm has 50 employees. “Most of them make double the minimum wage,” she says. Monument supporters like Spalding point to studies showing that the creation of national monuments expand the economies in nearby communities; anti-monument groups trot out other research showing the opposite.

The Impacts of Uncertainty

Will resource jobs return to Escalante? The coal on the Kaiparowits is deeply buried. It will be difficult to recover and even more difficult to get to market through such craggy, harsh, remote terrain; the collapse of the market for coal today makes those economics even more difficult.

“It didn’t happen when coal was king in the 70s because the infrastructure wasn’t there,” says Nicole Croft of Escalante Partners, a local environmental organization. Nor will the new boundaries alter the math for the cattle industry in the monument: ranchers still run cattle on the vast majority of the acreage they leased before its creation.

What the cuts have introduced to Escalante and national monument communities across the nation is uncertainty. “It’s been 21 years now,” says Spalding. “These gateway towns are full of people who made lives and families around the monument.”

Will tourists continue to visit, Spalding asks, if there are drilling rigs in the foreground and mining plumes in the background? “No one knows what will happen next,” says Croft. “The rug is being pulled out from under us.”

Hannah Nordhaus is author of American Ghost and The Beekeeper’s Lament. Based in Boulder, Colorado, she is covering public lands in the West for National Geographic magazine, with National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey. Huey is based in Seattle and has extensively covered cultural and environmental issues.

BEARS EARS Created Dec. 28, 2016 by President Obama in southern Utah. Named for two buttes that jut above the ridgeline, the monument encompasses 1.35 million acres of Utah’s spectacular red-rock country. It protects ancient cliff dwellings and one of the largest collections of tribal artifacts in the West, and is so remote it was one of the last places in the continental United States to be mapped
GOLD BUTTE Created Dec. 28, 2016 by President Obama in southeast Nevada. This 296,940-acre landscape of dramatic red sandstone formations fills the gap between the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Virgin Mountains, and creates a continuous wildlife corridor for large animals, including bighorn sheep and mountain lions. The monument also provides habitat for numerous small animals, amphibians and reptiles, including the endangered Mojave desert tortoise and relict leopard frog, once considered extinct.
NORTHEAST CANYONS AND SEAMOUNTS MARINE Created Sept. 15, 2016 by President Obama in the Atlantic Ocean, 150 miles off the southern coast of New England. It encompasses 4,913 square miles along the continental shelf and beyond. The monument contains extinct undersea volcanoes and canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon. Canyon walls are covered with deep-water corals, anemones and sponges. Kemp’s ridley sea turtles and sperm, fin and sei whales are among the marine life protected.
KATAHDIN WOODS AND WATERS Created Aug. 24, 2016 by President Obama in north central Maine. It encompasses 87,500 acres of streams, rivers and woods and features views of Mount Katahdin, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The monument lies within a larger landscape that public and private campaigns have worked to preserve for a century.
SAND TO SNOW Created February 12, 2016 by President Obama in Southern California. It includes 154,000 acres, stretching from the Sonoran Desert floor to San Gorgonio Mountain, elevation 11,500 feet. The monument protects more than 240 species of birds and 12 threatened or endangered animals and provides a recreational haven for more than 24 million people. More than 100,000 acres of the monument had earlier been designated wilderness by Congress.
MOJAVE TRAILS Created Feb. 12, 2016 by President Obama in Southern California. It extends along an undeveloped stretch of Route 66 between Ludlow and Needles. The monument features dramatic sand dunes, ancient lava flows and desert mountains traversed by both Spanish explorers and the transcontinental railway. Congress earlier designated more than 350,000 acres of the 1.6-million-acre monument as wilderness.
BASIN AND RANGE Created July 10, 2015 by President Obama in eastern Nevada. Spanning 704,000 acres from the Mojave Desert to the sagebrush steppe of the Great Basin, the monument includes mountains and basins, sheer cliffs, caves with stalagmites and other formations, and preserves prehistoric rock art dating back 4,000 years.
SAN GABRIEL MOUNTAINS Created Oct. 10, 2014 by President Obama in Southern California. Snow-capped in winter, the San Gabriels provide an “island of green” for 15 million people who live within 90 minutes of it. This 346,000-acre landscape provides 70 percent of the open space for Los Angelenos and 30 percent of their drinking water.
SAN GABRIEL MOUNTAINS Created Oct. 10, 2014 by President Obama in Southern California. Snow-capped in winter, the San Gabriels provide an “island of green” for 15 million people who live within 90 minutes of it. This 346,000-acre landscape provides 70 percent of the open space for Los Angelenos and 30 percent of their drinking water.
ORGAN MOUNTAINS-DESERT PEAKS Created May 21, 2014 by President Obama in southern New Mexico. It includes 496,000 acres of both craggy canyons and grasslands in the Chihuahuan Desert. The monument protects a region with a rich history dating by to the Folsom and Clovis cultures, southern New Mexico’s first humans, and includes six wilderness study areas that have been protected since 1980.
RIO GRANDE DEL NORTE Created March 25, 2013 by President Obama in northern New Mexico. The monument's 242,500 acres includes 10,000-foot volcanic mountains, grasslands, and deep river gorges. It is home to abundant collections of tribal artifacts, the Taos Plateau, a center for geologic and volcanic research, and a major migratory bird flyway for Canada geese, hummingbirds, sandhill cranes, herons, and avocets.
MARIANA TRENCH MARINE Created Jan. 6, 2009 by President Bush in the western Pacific. It encompasses 95,216 square miles in the Mariana Archipelago, a string of 14 volcanic islands in the Northern Mariana islands. It includes the Marianas Trench, which extends 36,000 feet below sea level, and the largest mud volcanoes on Earth. The Sulfur Cauldron – a phenomenon so rare, the only other pool of molten sulfur that has been located is on one of Jupiter’s moons. The monument’s biologically diverse waters also support unique corals and a large population of sharks.
ROSE ATOLL MARINE Created Jan. 6, 2009 by President Bush in the South Pacific Ocean. It protects nearly 13,400 square miles and includes the Rose Atoll, a small Samoan island and the southernmost point of the United States. Within the monument boundaries lies the Rose Atoll Wildlife Refuge, created in 1973, and home to the delicate, rose-colored corals for which the atoll was named. The surrounding waters also supports an abundance of rare and endangered marine animals and seabirds, including the largest number of nesting turtles in American Samoa, giant clams, parrotfishes, sharks, whales and 17 species of birds.
PACIFIC REMOTE ISLANDS MARINE Created January 6, 2009, by President Bush and enlarged September 25, 2014, by President Obama in the central Pacific Ocean. It encompasses 490,000 square miles that includes Wake, Baker, Howland, and Jarvis islands; Johnston and Palmyra atolls; and Kingman Reef. It is one of the world’s largest marine conservation areas and considered one of the last refuges for a host of fish and marine mammals including sea turtles, dolphins, whales, pearl oysters, giant clams, sharks, parrotfishes and large grouper.
PAPAHANAUMOKUAKEA MARINE Created June 15, 2006 by President Bush in the Pacific Ocean northwest of Hawaii and enlarged Aug. 26, 2016 by President Obama 583,000 square miles. It is the largest protected area on Earth. A fourth of the 7,000 species of marine animals and seabirds that live in the monument are not found anywhere else. This includes the last of the Hawaiian monk seals, as well as blue whales and short-tailed albatrosses.
UPPER MISSOURI RIVER BREAKS Created Jan. 17, 2001 by President Clinton in northern Montana. It includes 377,000 acres along a 149-mile stretch of the Upper Missouri River and contains a segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail “as remote and nearly as undeveloped as it was in 1805.” Home to elk, bighorn sheep, antelope, hawks, prairie falcon and golden eagles, the monument also encompasses six wilderness study areas, a section of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, the Ft. Benton National Historic Landmark, and the Cow Creek Island Area of Critical Environmental Concern.
SONORAN DESERT Created Jan. 17, 2001 by President Clinton in southern Arizona. It encompasses 487,000 acres of the most biologically diverse desert in North America. It includes three mountain ranges – the Maricopa, Sand Tank and Table Top Mountains -- as well as the Booth and White Hills and forests of distinctive saguaro cactus.
CARRIZO PLAIN Created Jan. 17, 2001 by President Clinton 175 miles northwest of Los Angeles in Southern California. At 204,000 acres, it is one of the last remaining remnants of a once-sweeping grassy plain that covered the Central Valley two centuries before settlers arrived. It is known for its springtime wildflowers and Soda Lake, a dry lakebed and one of the largest natural alkali wetlands in Southern California.
VERMILION CLIFFS Created Nov. 9, 2000 by President Clinton northeast of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Described at the time as a “geological treasure,” this expanse of 293,000 acres contains spectacular trails and vistas along trails that climb from 3,100 to 7,100 feet. Its centerpiece is the Paria Plateau, a “grand terrace” that lies in the center of multi-colored stair-step rock strata. The monument is also home to endangered California condors hatched in a captive breeding program and released into Vermilion Cliffs.
CRATERS OF THE MOON Created May 2, 1924, by President Coolidge in central Idaho at 54,000 acres. The monument was enlarged slightly by President Kennedy in 1962, then dramatically expanded to 738,000 acres by President Clinton Nov. 9, 2000. It encompasses a dramatic moonscape of 60 lava beds and 25 cinder cones. The most distinctive formation is a 65-mile-long fissure known as the Great Rift. In 1970, Congress set aside 43,243 acres as a national wilderness, then in 2002, to appease objections from cattlemen, redesignated Clinton’s expansion as a national preserve. In March, the Idaho Senate passed a resolution expressing support for Congress to designate the original 54,000 acres as a national park. Idaho is the only western state lacking a national park.
IRONWOOD FOREST Created June 9, 2000 by President Clinton in southern Arizona. The monument includes 129,000 acres and takes its name from one of the longest living trees in the Sonoran Desert. Ironwood trees live up to 800 years. One of the densest ironwood forests in the whole Sonoran grows in the protected Silver Bell Mountains.
CASCADE-SISKIYOU Created June 9, 2000, by President Clinton in southwest Oregon and northwest California. Set in the Cascade Range, the fir forests and wildflower-filled meadows are part of the first monument ever set aside for the preservation of biodiversity. At 100,000 acres, it contains a wide variety of species in a relatively geographically small area of 100,000 acres, including the threatened spotted owl, the pileated woodpecker and the pygmy nuthatch.
HANFORD REACH Created June 9, 2000 by President Clinton in eastern Washington state. Once a buffer zone around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation as it developed nuclear weapons, the monument includes the last free-flowing stretch of the mighty Columbia River -- the 51-mile-long “Hanford Reach.” It also protects one of the last remaining large shrub-steppe ecosystems in the Columbia River Basin.
CANYONS OF THE ANCIENTS Created June 9, 2000 by President Clinton in southwestern Colorado. Reaching across 175,160 acres, the monument contains one of the highest densities of archaeological sites in the nation, dating back 10,000 years. It is also home to desert species such as the long-nosed leopard lizard, peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks and golden eagles.
GIANT SEQUOIA Created April 15, 2000 by President Clinton in central California. The monument protects 33 groves of ancient sequoias, the world’s largest tree. The monument's 328,000 acres is divided into two sections directly north and south of Sequoia National Park. Sequoias grow only along a 60-mile-wide band of conifer forests on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
GRAND CANYON-PARASHANT Created Jan. 11, 2000 by President Clinton along the north rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. At slightly more than 1 million acres, the monument is roadless, undeveloped and remote and in 2013, received International Night Sky Province designation in order to attempt long duration starlight monitoring. Geologic formations include deep canyons, high buttes, and, the Grand Wash Cliffs, shown here. Caves contain fossils dating to the ice age and tribal artifacts.
GRAND STAIRCASE-ESCALANTE Created Sept. 18, 1996 by President Clinton in southern Utah. Advertised by the Utah state tourism agency as “phenomenal,” the monument takes its name from a series of plateaus extending over 1.7 million acres that descend like stair-steps from Bryce Canyon in southwestern Utah to the Grand Canyon and are named for their distinctive colors -- the Pink Cliffs, Grey Cliffs, White Cliffs, Vermillion Cliffs and Chocolate Cliffs. At 9,000 feet, the Kaiparowits Plateau is the highest, most remote part of the monument. It also contains Utah’s largest coal field. Monument designation stopped a Dutch mining company from its plan to mine what Utah geologists estimated was 62 billion tons of coal.
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This story was updated at 4:00 pm ET on December 4 with quotes from President Trump and confirmed details of the reductions.
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