Interior Secretary Deb Haaland
c/o Bears Ears National Monument, San Juan County, Utah
(Hold for arrival)
Dear Secretary Haaland,
Welcome to Bears Ears National Monument, and thank you for taking the time to listen to the various groups of people who are interested in what the future of that sacred and much-disputed landscape might be.
Those groups include not only local, state and federal elected officials but also local landowners, ranchers and, most important, representatives of the five Native American nations that petitioned for the creation of the monument in the first place. Those Indigenous peoples were notably absent from the guest list when one of your predecessors, Ryan Zinke, made a similar visit to the area in 2017 at the direction of President Donald Trump.
There was little question what Zinke’s mission was then. It was to lay the political groundwork for Trump to slash the size of the monument down to some 200,000 acres — an 85% reduction — as a way of thanking Utah Republican office-holders for their support for his tax cut legislation and other priorities. Republicans in Utah were unanimous in their opposition to the 2016 creation of the monument by President Barack Obama, labeling it as executive overreach and perpetuating the myth that it was somehow a federal land grab, when every square inch was and is land the federal government already owned.
Now there are many who hope your mission is as pre-determined as Zinke’s was, in your case to recommend to President Joe Biden that he restore Bears Ears to its original size, and that he do the same for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to the west, which was also greatly reduced by Trump. The hope flows from the fact that you are the first Native American member of any president’s Cabinet and from the president’s promise to undo some of The Previous Guy’s ill-considered public lands decisions.
While prejudging the outcome is not appropriate for any public official conducting a review such as yours, those restorations are exactly what should happen. It is an action that has the support not only of the Indigenous peoples but also elected leaders in San Juan and Grand counties and the cities of Moab and Bluff.
Obama delayed action on Bears Ears until near the end of his administration. That was not (only) for political cover but also because he was holding back until Utah and Native leaders had had every chance to work out a deal that could be ratified by him, using the power given him by the Antiquities Act, or, better, adopted as an act of Congress.
When that didn’t happen, Obama rightly acted. He correctly noted that such protection had been sought for more than 80 years and that the spiritual concern for, and ecological knowledge of, the land, as handed down to current Native Americans, is itself a resource worthy of preservation. And those who now call for a split-the-difference compromise forget that Obama’s 1.3 million-acre designation was already the compromise from the 2 million acres sought by the Native nations.
What didn’t happen was the analysis, the work and the expenditures necessary to truly preserve Bears Ears, its natural beauty and its many remembrances of human habitation over millennia. The planned organization to oversee those activities never got off the ground and the need for planning, protection and interpretation, for those who live in the area and the many who will visit, remains undone. Restoring the original Obama proclamation can start that overdue process and should be an explicit part of your recommendation, Madame Secretary.
As for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, you probably already know that its creation was more problematic. President Bill Clinton surprised everyone with his 1996 proclamation, a much more bald-faced political stunt to win the votes of environmentally minded Americans as part of his reelection campaign.
But the fact is that Grand Staircase should also be restored to its original dimensions. In the more than two decades since it was created, the monument has become the way things are and an encouragement for many thriving hospitality and outdoor tourism businesses in the area.
Trump’s reduction of Grand Staircase was all the more ridiculous due to the fact that, way back in 1998, both Congress and Utah effectively ratified the declaration in a process that traded state land within the monument boundaries for more productive, mineral-rich land elsewhere in the state.
A similar land swap involving Bears Ears, cementing the monument, would be in order. America’s public lands and those who love them are not helped by a series of expansions and contractions that occur with every change of administration.
We hope you enjoy your visit to Utah, Secretary Haaland, and that our public lands soon will benefit from your attention.