By now you likely have heard of President Trump’s executive order to shrink two rugged national monuments in Utah—a move that cuts Bears Ears by 85 percent and the Grand Staircase–Escalante nearly in half.
The move represents the largest purge of protected public land in American history. All told, an article in the New York Times indicates Bears Ears will be reduced to just over 200,000 acres from the 1.35 million acres President Obama set aside when he established the national monument in December 2016, and Grand Staircase–Escalante will be reduced to about 1 million acres from the 1.88 million acres President Clinton protected when he established it in September 1996.
Do the math: That means the president’s decision will eliminate nearly 2 million acres of national-monument land in Utah alone. (As of this writing, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had proposed that Trump also shrink Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon and suggested that the president change the way an additional six national monuments are managed.)
For travelers, the impact of the Utah moves is simple and stark: less open space to explore.
But Emily Moench, a spokesperson for the Utah Office of Tourism, Film, and Global Branding, said the changes will not take effect for some time.
“Following the executive order, many of the most critical tourism related decisions lie ahead in federal land management plans and the county’s tourism development plans,” she wrote in an email statement Wednesday. “All public lands within the original monument boundaries will continue to be open to the public for recreation and enjoyment. We will work closely with the counties, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to provide information to tourists on how best to experience the public lands and spectacular Native American artifacts in these areas.”
Of course, the battle over these public lands has many facets. On one hand, the president and state and regional Republican leaders claim monument status closes off the areas to energy development and other access. On the other hand, environmentalists and Native American groups say the land is valuable for archaeological and cultural reasons.
A lawsuit filed by the nonprofit environmental law group Earthjustice hours after the decision alleges the mesas, cliffs, and canyons of Bears Ears are home to more than 100,000 archaeological and cultural sites, with some dating back to 12,000 B.C.E. This is not the only lawsuit that threatens to derail the downsizing effort; according to the Washington Post, other environmental and conservation groups, as well as a number of Native American tribes filed additional lawsuits Monday.
Outdoor retailers also have joined the fray. Patagonia, which filed its own lawsuit Wednesday, replaced its product-oriented homepage with a call to action that reads: “The President Stole Your Land.” The new page lists objective and factual information about public support for protecting federal public lands and historical data about the importance of public lands over time.
REI published a similar message, while The North Face went in a different direction, launching a Bears Ears Education Center that customers can support on Kickstarter. The original goal was to raise $100,000; by Wednesday, more than $150,000 had been pledged.
The issue of downsizing public lands is one that affects everybody. And obviously, due in part to the pending court cases, this situation is still evolving. Regardless of where you stand on the issue politically, if you haven’t been to Bears Ears or Grand Staircase–Escalante and you want to go, you probably should consider getting there soon. Before it’s too late.
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