Nearly two years after dramatically shrinking the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, the Trump administration finalized a management plan Friday that would allow trees to be plowed down using heavy chains, as well as utility lines and more ranching, in the smaller area that is still preserved.
The new plan for the nearly 202,000-acre expanse of public land, which removes five Native American tribes from the management board of a monument they fought to designate, drew immediate protest from conservation and tribal groups.
But officials from the Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service who jointly manage the monument said in a statement that it balanced the region’s economic interests against the need to safeguard it.
“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,” said Ed Roberson, Utah state director for the Bureau of Land Management, a division of the Interior Department.
The administration spent months soliciting input on its plans to expand energy extraction and other activities on two areas in southern Utah that were restricted under previous presidents. In addition to Bears Ears, which was established by President Barack Obama, President Donald Trump cut the neighboring Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, established by President Bill Clinton in 1996, nearly in half.
Plans to revise Grand Staircase-Escalante’s management are stalled because the Government Accountability Office is investigating whether Interior Department officials’ move to open up lands that previously excluded oil, gas and coal extraction broke federal spending law.
In addition, conservationists argued in a statement, the newly released plan for Bears Ears would be “rendered entirely null and void if environmental groups and Native American tribes win the legal battle” over Trump’s decision to carve off 1.1 million acres — 85% — of Bears Ears’ original designation.
A coalition of groups sued the administration immediately after Trump traveled to Salt Lake City to make the announcement in December 2017. “If we win the legal fight to restore Bears Ears National Monument, this plan will just be 800 pages of wasted effort,” said Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountains office.
A federal judge is considering Justice Department motions to dismiss two lawsuits challenging the decisions to shrink both monuments. The question of whether the Antiquities Act allows a president to essentially rescind monument designations made by a predecessor hinges on the judge’s ruling.
The final management plan and environmental impact statement issued Friday apply to Bears Ears’ Indian Creek and Shash Jaa units, which have a higher level of protection than the 1.1 million acres Trump removed from the monument.
Bureau officials emphasized that they imposed some new restrictions on areas inside the existing monument, including prohibiting target shooting at sites such as campgrounds, developed recreation sites, petroglyphs and cliff dwellings. But legal hunting will be allowed throughout the area, as will fishing.
The bureau decided against alternative plans that would completely disallow off-highway vehicles from operating in any part of the monument, opting for limited use in some areas.
“We appreciate everyone who took the time to provide meaningful comments,” Canyon Country District Manager Lance Porter said in a statement. Conservation groups say at least a quarter of a million public comments were submitted.
Ethan Lane, executive director of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Public Lands Council, said in an interview Friday that the administration’s strategy allowed for traditional uses of the landscape without harming more-sensitive resources.
“That, to us, seems like it’s common sense,” Lane said. “I know that’s an anathema to anyone who thinks we should never touch it again and close the gate.”
Many environmental groups have operated on the principle that once an area is designated as a national monument, the way it is managed can never be changed.
“It’s just lunacy to say this is a one-and-done deal,” he said.
One of the most controversial aspects of the new plan — “chaining” — angered conservationists. It involves a process in which two heavy mechanized vehicles drag a thick anchor chain across forest, leveling trees and shrubs.
The new plan posed chaining as a prevention measure that clears the forest of fuel that feeds wildfires. But it is often used as a way to open rugged terrain for cattle grazing favored by ranchers in Utah who opposed the Bears Ears designation.
Some ranchers in the state said they would need time to assess the plan’s impact on grazing. But Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollack said in an interview that cattle owners like himself trusted the administration had treated the livestock industry fairly.
“We support this president, and we support his policies, because they’re doing so much for ranchers, and not only ranchers but conservationists,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans wrote in protest to the proposed management plan, though administration officials such as then-interior secretary Ryan Zinke repeatedly dismissed some of those comments on the grounds that they were organized by environmental groups.
National Wildlife Federation president and chief executive Collin O’Mara said the administration is laying open the ancestral lands of the Navajo, Hopi, Ute and Zuni tribes that worked to protect it. “Now the management plan for the meager remnants of the original monument simply pours salt in the open wounds of the tens of thousands of tribal leaders and citizens who fought for decades to conserve these sacred lands,” O’Mara said.
“It’s like seeing that your grandmother’s house has been robbed,” said Carleton Bowekaty, lieutenant governor of the Zuni Pueblo and co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. “These lands are sacred to us, and they are being destroyed — sometimes inadvertently — by people who don’t understand our culture and way of life. That’s why we want all of this area protected, so we can help educate others and share our traditions with all people.”