Where Utah once had two large national monuments, the state now has five smaller ones under an order signed Monday by President Donald Trump — but several high-value sites the original monuments were designed to protect are left out.
On a swift visit to Salt Lake City Monday morning, Trump dramatically reduced the once 1.35-million acre Bears Ears to 202,000 acres in two new renamed monuments and the Grand Staircase-Escalante to three new monuments totaling more than 1 million acres, down from 1.9 million acres.
In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune on Sunday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who traveled with Trump to Utah Monday, said the original proclamations creating Bears Ears and Grand Staircase drew boundary lines “arbitrarily” in ways that disrupt access and “locked people out.”
“We’re not making any more land and the more you can promote the public to use and adore and bond with our public lands, the better off our country will be,” Zinke said. “There are no oil and gas resources that anyone has reported in Bears Ears. It really is about multiple use and multiple use is grazing, timber management, recreation, being able to use in some places four-wheel drives.”
Here’s a look at the new monuments — and key areas now left out of national monument protections.
Shash Jaa National Monument (formerly in Bears Ears National Monument)
Anchored by Comb Ridge west of Blanding and Bluff, the new 129,980-acre monument includes Bears Ears Buttes, the highly visible mesas held sacred by various Native American tribes. Shash Jaa monument carries the Navajo name for the iconic twin buttes that tower 2,000 feet above the surrounding terrain and are held sacred by various tribes, according to Trump’s proclamation.
Just east of the buttes are Mule and Arch canyons which contain ruins built by Ancestral Puebloans 1,000 years ago.
“Five-hundred feet deep, 5 miles long, and decorated with alternating layers of red and white sandstone, these 2 striking canyons contain shelter-cliff dwellings and other archaeological sites, including the scenic and accessible House on Fire Ruin, which includes differing masonry styles that indicate several episodes of construction and use,” the proclamation states.
The monument covers the entire length of Comb Ridge, which the Navajo called Tséyíkʼáán, or “backbone of the world,” as well as two non-contiguous areas of land featuring world-renown ruins known as Doll House and Moon House, which Trump contends are examples of the kinds of objects are worthy of national monument status.
Moon House was likely the last occupied site on Cedar Mesa before the Anasazi cleared out in the 13th century. Doll House is “a fully intact and well-preserved single room granary that is associated with an extensive agricultural area on the mesa top,” the proclamation states.
Indian Creek National Monument (also formerly in Bears Ears)
This monument covers 71,896 acres along State Route 211 where it passes through a world-class crack climbing area and Dugout Ranch. This land abuts Canyonlands National Park’s Needles district and captures Six Shooter peaks and numerous rock art sites such as Shay Canyon and Newspaper Rock.
“This [latter] site displays a significant concentration of rock art from multiple periods, etched into Wingate sandstone,” the proclamation states. “Dinosaur tracks in the bottom of the Shay Canyon stream bed are a unique visual reminder of the area’s distant past. Additional paleontological resources can be found throughout the Indian Creek area, including vertebrate and invertebrate fossils, primarily in the Chinle Formation.”
Left out: Many places, or the natural and cultural resources they harbor, were highlighted in the original monument designations, but were evicted from the new monuments. Glaring ommissions include Cedar Mesa and Elk Ridge, the highlands west of Blanding that once supported an ancient civilization far more densely populated than seen today in San Juan County.
In the case of Cedar Mesa, Zinke contends more than 400,000 acres of it is already managed as wilderness, which carries a larger degree of protection than monument status. The new Shash Jaa monument’s western boundary dovetails with an ongoing wilderness study area that was left out.
“Cedar Mesa is unaccessible wilderness,” Zinke said. “We had to also devise boundaries where I can, Interior can actually monitor and protect monuments to make it clear where the boundaries were.”
Also now outside monument boundaries is Valley of the Gods at the southern base of Cedar Mesa, filled with dramatic sandstone spires. Wind and waters sculpted a thick layer of Cedar Mesa sandstone into a massive hallway of multicolored formations with names like Lady in the Bathtub, Castle Butte, Battleship Rock and Setting Hen Butte.
Excluded, too, are several sites popular with motorized users and climbers, including Lockhart Basin, resting along the Colorado River opposite Canyonlands National Park. Cliffs of Wingate sandstone hem this area. About 200 miles of canyons wind through Mancos Mesa, an island in the sky overlooking Lake Powell and also now omitted from monument status.
Trump concluded these places, along with habitat, wildlife species and cryptobiotic soils and archaeological sites, did not warrant protection under the Antiquities Act. According to his proclamations, these resources are not unique to the monument, not under immediate threat, don’t qualify as “objects of historic or scientific interest,” or are protected under existing federal law.
Spanning 1.9 million acres when declared by President Bill Clinton in 1996, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is now carved into three monuments, named, west to east, Grand Staircase (209,993 acres), Kaiparowits (551,034 acres), and Escalante Canyons (242,836 acres), totaling just over 1 million acres.
The new, smaller Grand Staircase National Monument
This “unbroken sequence of cliffs and plateaus, considered to be the most colorful exposed geologic section in the world, has inspired wonder in visitors since the days of early western explorers,” the proclamation reads. It encompasses two critical steps of the Grand Staircase, the White and Vermilion cliffs.
The higher White Cliffs are the “the hardened remains of the largest sand sea that ever existed,” while the Vermilion Cliffs, “once the eastern shore of the ancient Lake Dixie, contain a rich fossil record from the Late Triassic period to the early Jurassic period, including petrified wood, fish, dinosaur, and other reptilian bones.”
Escalante Canyons National Monument
Considered the most scenic part of the old Grand Staircase monument, this network of slickrock slot canyons draining to the Escalante River includes the 130-foot-tall Escalante Natural Bridge.
“This area boasts Calf Creek Canyon, a canyon of red alcoved walls with expanses of white slickrock that is named for its use as a natural cattle pen at the end of the 19th century,” the proclmation reads. “To the east of the Canyonlands, Circle Cliffs is a breached anticline with spectacular painted-desert scenery, the result of exposed sedimentary rocks of the Triassic Chinle and Moenkopi formations.”
Kaiparowits National Monument
Included in this monument are Grosvenor Arch, Hackberry Canyon, the Cockscomb and the old Paria townsite.
Under the 1,600-square-mile plateau, bordered by the Straight Cliffs on the east and Paria Canyon on the west, are sedimentary rock formations containing an unbroken record of fossils spanning 30 million years of the Late Cretaceous Era. Life forms of all kinds are recorded here, but dinosaurs have captured the most attention.
In an apparent effort to free up some the Kaiparowits Plateau’s rich coal seams, the monument’s boundaries feature arms jutting in all directions that framing big sections that were taken out.
Paleontologist Jeff Eaton, who has worked on the plateau for more than 30 years in search of early mammals, could make no sense of the monument boundaries.
They also delineate three non-contiguous satellite units, including Dance Hall Rock, an important layover spot for the San Juan Expedition of 1879-80, and two blocks of land just north of U.S. Highway 89. It is not clear why these two swaths of land near Big Water were included.
“They have created a land management nightmare,” wrote Eaton, a retired Weber State University professor, in an e-mail. “Previous boundaries made sense as they connected Capitol Reef National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, or National Forest. Now there are odd strips of land breaking up what were contiguous management areas.”
Left out: Among other places excluded from monument protection are most of the Hole in the Rock trail, used by the San Juan Expedition between Escalante and Dance Hall Rock; Buckskin Mountain, on the Arizona state line; Alvey Wash, Horizon Arch and Carcass Canyon, all just south of Esclanate; and the canyon spilling off the south side of Fiftymile Mountain toward Glen Canyon.