Forests could be cleared, an ATV trail built and utility lines erected under a new federal management plan unveiled Friday for the shrunken Bears Ears National Monument.
The far-reaching plan, released by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, spells out priorities and guidelines for the 202,000 acres that remain in the monument since President Donald Trump reduced it to 15% of its original size in late 2017.
At 800-plus pages, the plan outlines proposals and potential impacts on everything from recreation areas and human waste to grazing and rights of way for utility lines.
It will provide a "blueprint to protect the awe-inspiring natural and cultural resources that make this monument nationally significant,” said Ed Roberson, Utah director for the BLM, “while enhancing recreational opportunities and ensuring access to traditional uses.”
The agencies made adjustments from the “preferred alternative” draft plan, one of four proposals put forward last year. The proposal released Friday offers a fifth option, known as Alternative E, which limits dispersed camping to “previously disturbed areas” along with recreation group sizes in some places.
In some cases, the plan could lead to fewer protections than the pre-monument resource management plan. Group size limits may increase in lower Arch Canyon and some canyons on the archaeologically rich Cedar Mesa.
The new plan also allows for chaining — the clearing of pinyon and juniper forests, often used to create pasture for grazing or fire management — within Bears Ears, and for the potential construction of a new OHV trail in the Indian Creek area.
Unlike some of the other proposals, the plan states Alternative E will “not manage inventoried lands with wilderness characteristics specifically to protect wilderness characteristics.” It also notes Alternative E places fewer restrictions on recreational visitation, group size, camping, campfires, rock climbing, pets and target shooting than other alternatives, which could “diminish the recreational experience of recreational users who visit the monument to enjoy its scenic resources and desire a more primitive recreation setting.”
Within hours of its release, the plan drew condemnation from a host of environmental and scientific groups, many of which are suing the Trump administration over its cuts to the monument.
Friends of Cedar Mesa, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, Conservation Lands Foundation, Grand Canyon Trust, Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, Earthjustice, Access Fund, National Wildlife Federation, National Parks Conservation Association and National Trust for Historic Preservation all issued statements critical of the management plan, many saying that it doesn’t offer enough protections to the already reduced monument.
“Even in the parts of Bears Ears that President Trump left intact, he’s planning on putting destructive activities before the American public’s interests," said Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountains office. "Bears Ears is not the kind of place for chaining thousands of acres of forest or stringing up utility lines. These are wild, sweeping monument lands.”
Five Native American tribes with ancestral ties to the Bears Ears landscape — the Navajo Nation, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni and Ute — petitioned for the monument’s creation during President Barack Obama’s second term. In December 2016, Obama created a 1.35-million acre monument. It stood for less than a year before Trump slashed it. All five tribes and a number of conservation groups sued over the reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The case remains in federal court in Washington.
“If we win the legal fight to restore Bears Ears National Monument, this plan will just be 800 pages of wasted effort," McIntosh said, referring to the fact that the $2.3 million management plan will have to be rewritten if the courts determine Trump lacked the authority to reduce the monument.
Democrats on the House Natural Resource Committee also criticized the plan. “This management plan is a cynical attempt to support President Trump’s illegal move, and publishing it before the judge has ruled smacks of disrespect for the judicial branch,” Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said in a news release.
“This plan relies on the advice of a rigged panel of monument opponents,” Grijalva added, referring to the Monument Advisory Committee that was appointed in the spring. Critics, including Grijalva, have noted the committee is made up almost entirely of monument foes.
“Bears Ears is a treasure that everyone should be able to enjoy and should be protected for future generations who hold it sacred,” said Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., head of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands and one of the first Native American women elected to Congress. “However, this administration’s management plan only reinforces its illegal action to steal huge swaths of land from the national monument so that oil and gas and mining companies can exploit the land. It puts sacred sites at risk of being lost forever."
While much of the land pared from the monument remains protected as primitive, wilderness or wilderness study areas, it no longer is being managed under a single plan from the BLM and Forest Service, and some areas have been reopened to mining and drilling. New ATV trails were not allowed under Obama’s 2016 proclamation but are allowed within the reduced monument.
Earlier this year, Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, co-sponsored the Bears Ears Expansion and Respect for Sovereignty Act, which would boost the monument beyond its original boundaries to the 1.9 million-acre version proposed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. The act would also increase the decision-making power of elected tribal representatives, which was limited when the monument was reduced in 2017.
Bears Ears is entirely within southeastern Utah’s San Juan County, and a newly configured County Commission voted to support the act to restore and expand the monument in February.
“We appreciate the Bureau of Land Management’s efforts to include tribes, local communities, and the state of Utah in establishing management plans for Bears Ears National Monument," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s office said in a statement. "Our office will review the plans carefully and ensure they meet our shared goals of protecting artifacts and ensuring appropriate public access. Ultimately, congressional action will be the best way to create certainty and long-term protections for this beautiful and important part of the state.”
The Monument Advisory Committee recommended at its first meeting in June that no areas in the monument be closed to grazing, but the final plan limits grazing in nine canyons on Comb Ridge that contain cultural resources. It also requires visitors to pack out human waste from Comb Ridge and Mule Canyon.
The management plan proposes to ban target shooting in campgrounds, developed recreation sites, petroglyphs and structural archaeological sites such as cliff dwellings.
The BLM and Forest Service are not expected to release a cultural resources plan for the monument for at least two years.
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.