The fate of the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument was called into question almost as soon as it was created by former President Barack Obama in December 2016. Donald Trump had already won the election, and his supporters pushed him to reverse Obama’s decision, a call Trump heeded less than a year later.
This back-and-forth created difficulties for the Bureau of Land Management, which — along with the U.S. Forest Service — oversees lands in Bears Ears. The agency ordered a batch of new signs that were designed to be posted along the monument’s boundaries in early 2017, but the exact boundaries have never been a fully settled question.
President Joe Biden’s decision Friday to restore the Obama-era boundaries isn’t likely to result in any immediate changes on the ground in either Bears Ears or Grand Staircase-Escalante.
The new Bear Ears monument is actually larger than the original because it includes 11,200 acres that the Trump administration added in 2017, according to the White House. The 2 million acres Biden put back into monument status will remain available for livestock grazing, firewood and hunting, but these lands will be withdrawn from future mining claims and mineral leasing.
A handful of mining claims were filed in the areas that were cut from the monuments and those remain valid, along with claims that preceded the monuments’ creation. But since Obama excluded San Juan County’s richest uranium and oil and gas deposits from Bears Ears in 2016, no serious development plans have been proposed. Coal reserves in Grand Staircase, once a hotly debated issue, are less likely to see development interest as coal demand declines globally.
Campers, hikers and sight-seers can expect a similar experience in the near future at both monuments, regardless of the boundary changes. Members of the Bears Ears coalition tribes — Hopi, Zuni, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain Ute and the Navajo Nation — and other Indigenous peoples, will still be able to collect medicinal plants and conduct ceremonies.
Last year, the BLM and U.S. Forest Service completed a management plan for Bears Ears that will have to be jettisoned as they craft a new one, as directed by the proclamation Biden signed Friday. This order also directed Interior Department to work with the state of Utah to trade out more than 100,000 acres of state trust sections inside the redrawn monument.
The document also reestablishes the Bears Ears Commission, with representation from each of the five tribes, “to provide guidance and recommendations on the development and implementation of management plans and on management of the entire monument.”
In a White House statement released Thursday night, the Biden administration committed to funding more park ranger positions in southern Utah while promising to make Bears Ears “a model for Tribal participation in the management of the Monument.” Both commitments will likely play a significant role in shaping the management decisions and resource protection plans for the Bears Ears landscape over the coming years, and monument advocates are pushing for sustained protection beyond Friday’s order.
“While some may view this landscape as another park to visit,” said Friends of Cedar Mesa board member Louis Williams, a local guide and citizen of the Navajo Nation, “for me it’s a living landscape — one that provides sustenance and healing. While we are grateful these lands are once again protected, they must also be respected.”
In the biologically diverse Grand Staircase-Escalante, supporters of the monument expansion are hoping Biden’s decision will be coupled with more resources for scientific research — a major component of the monument’s designation in 1996 by former President Bill Clinton that was slowly defunded in subsequent administrations. Friday’s proclamation restoring the monument instructs the BLM to develop a new management plan and manage the entire monument as a single unit, instead of the three that Trump’s order created.
Sarah Bauman, executive director of Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, said she also hopes the monument’s new management plan will give greater voice to tribal governments with cultural ties to the region, something that was not mandated by Clinton’s proclamation.
“We also know that this is only the beginning of our work to ensure that this landscape — the first Monument placed into the National Landscape Conservation System — is conserved, and its important science objectives, inclusive of Indigenous knowledge, realized,” Bauman said. “We look forward to working with Tribal leaders, conservation partners, the Bureau of Land Management, local and state officials, and others to safeguard irreplaceable natural and cultural resources, conduct essential research related to biodiversity and climate change, and protect Grand Staircase in perpetuity.”
As for those Bears Ears welcome signs, they were never installed and have been collecting dust in a BLM storage facility since 2017. The White House statement prioritizes “adequate signage” for the monument, but when exactly the signs will be put up remains an open question.
Tribune reporter Brian Maffly contributed to this report. 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 by clicking here.