Shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante: Trump’s Monumental Mistake

Opening up hallowed ground to oil and gas development is quite literally an act of desecration.

February 14, 2020
Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

Bob Wick, BLM

Well, he told us he would do it. And now he’s actually doing it—or at least trying to. Late last week, President Trump, via the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, announced that he was formalizing his plan to develop lands that once belonged within the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in southern Utah. The former is a stunningly beautiful, ecologically fragile landscape that has played a crucial role in Native American culture in the Southwest for thousands of years; the latter, just as beautiful, is one of the richest and most important paleontological sites in North America.

The Trump administration would allow drilling, mining, and other highly disruptive forms of development to take place on millions of acres that are of immense and unquestionable scientific, cultural, and religious significance. This significance is what compelled President Bill Clinton to designate Grand Staircase-Escalante a national monument back in 1996, and what led President Barack Obama to bestow the same designation on Bears Ears two decades later.

On the one hand, the new plan comes as no surprise: In December 2017, Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears by roughly 85 percent, and Grand Staircase-Escalante by half. On the other hand, it came as a huge surprise, in that a great many legal experts contend that Trump’s resizing of the monuments is illegal, and, furthermore, believe that the courts—which are still in the midst of determining the move's legality—are likely to agree.

Normally, when your big plans are tied up in litigation and could come crashing down at any moment with the sweep of a judge’s gavel, you err on the side of prudence and resist the urge to forge ahead. Not this president. In a phone call with reporters last week, Casey Hammond, the Interior Department’s acting assistant secretary for land and minerals management, revealed the thinking behind his boss’s decision. “If we stopped and waited for every piece of litigation to be resolved,” he said, “we would never be able to do much of anything around here.”

Trump signing the hat of Bruce Adams, chairman of the San Juan County Commission, after signing a proclamation to shrink the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments at the Utah State Capitol

Rick Bowmer/AP/Shutterstock

Talk about saying the quiet part out loud. The administration can’t possibly know how the courts will rule, which leaves just one explanation: It doesn’t care how they will rule. Procedural due process may be fine for others, Trump and his Interior Department have concluded, but it’s just not their thing. They’re not going to wait around for some judge to tell them what they can or can’t do.  

But let’s set the legal question aside for a moment, and instead explore the moral question that applies. For the tribes and pueblos of the region, Bears Ears is hallowed ground, and has been for many centuries. In the words of Jim Enote, CEO of the Colorado Plateau Foundation, the land “is a touchstone for the Zuni people. The Zuni people go to the Bears Ears area to pay respect to our ancestors in a way that is not very different from people going to a cemetery and paying respect to their family members.” In Obama’s proclamation designating Bears Ears a national monument, he spent more than 4,000 words vividly detailing the history and grandeur of the land, linking its sacredness to its pristine natural beauty. Federal protection, he wrote, would “preserve its cultural, prehistoric, and historic legacy and maintain its diverse array of natural and scientific resources, ensuring that the prehistoric, historic, and scientific values of this area remain for the benefit of all Americans.”

Can you imagine the Trump administration—or any administration, for that matter—redrawing, by executive fiat, the boundaries of Arlington National Cemetery or the Lincoln Memorial to accommodate the desires of drilling, mining, and other extractive industries? It’s unthinkable. And yet this administration exhibits no compunction about grievously assaulting the lands, culture, and religious practices of Native Americans. When the monument was reduced, it made us think, again, we have given so much to this nation and we are receiving so little in return,” Enote told National Geographic magazine.

And for what reason? So that one of the fastest-growing state economies in the country can grow even faster?

The decision goes well beyond disrespect. It’s desecration. It’s an act openly contemptuous of both the five tribes’ heritage and that of all Americans. These lands, and the stories that they tell and the ways of life they sustain, are part of our country’s collective story and they deserve protection.

Trump’s plan’s also, like so many of his other gambits, legally unsound. If President Trump believes that recklessly moving forward on this act of administrative vandalism is going to somehow intimidate the courts or the coalition that has risen up in defense of Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante, he’s in for a surprise.

Stop the destruction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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