Bears Ears National Monument — the 1.3 million-acre version President Barack Obama designated and American Indian tribes embraced — will return.
So predicted former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Thursday, declaring that Bears Ears supporters will prevail in their legal battle to restore the southern Utah monument, set aside in 2016 by her then-boss using his presidential powers under the Antiquities Act.
During a keynote address at the University of Utah law school, the one-time outdoor industry executive said her recommendation to designate the 1.3 million-acre monument in San Juan County came in response to a petition by five American Indian tribes — and only after careful consideration of all stakeholders’ wishes and concerns.
“Local voices matter. That’s why I went there and met people with every point of view,” Jewell said in a conversation-format address at the law school’s annual public lands symposium hosted by the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment.
Also invoking the Antiquities Act, Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, slashed the monument to 200,000 acres in two separate units. The tribes that proposed the monument and several other groups sued, alleging presidents don’t have legal authority to shrink monuments designated by their predecessors.
Pending in U.S. District Court in Washington, the Bears Ears lawsuits have been administratively consolidated into one case while another combined case challenges Trump’s order reducing Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by half. Trump’s actions were widely panned as a favor to Utah’s political leadership, which has long opposed large-scale conservation designations, rather than the result of a genuinely deliberative process.
Obama’s designation deliberately excluded an additional 550,000 acres the tribes wanted in the monument, Jewell noted, out of respect to the state’s interest for mineral development on those lands.
During her visit to San Juan County in July 2016, she led an open meeting attended by 1,500 people, hiked to numerous archaeological sites and met with both supporters and opponents. During her successor Ryan Zinke’s May 2017 visit, by contrast, he met mostly with monument foes behind closed doors and did not tour any sites that later were removed from the monument.
Jewell’s remarks came in response to questions moderated by U. law professor Robert Keiter, who heads the Stegner Center. This year’s symposium explored recreation, which has become the primary use on public lands over the past few decades, eclipsing grazing, logging and mineral extraction.
Outdoor recreation now accounts for 2.2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. That’s a bigger contributor to the economy than agriculture, mining or oil and gas development. This transition from resources to recreation has led to conflicts over land use but has also opened new opportunities for economic expansion in rural parts of the West.
In Utah, recreation generated $9.1 billion in consumer spending, resulting in $1.3 billion in state and local tax revenue, according to Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism.
Shortly after she joined the office in 2013, it launched the famed “Mighty Five” campaign, touting Utah’s national parks to the world. And the world responded. Park visitation has since soared by 66 percent, twice the increase the National Park Service has seen systemwide, causing crowding in parks and gridlock in gateway towns like Moab and Springdale.
For better or worse, “that campaign was wildly successfully in establishing Utah’s brand,” Varela said. Her office has since pivoted toward promoting careful planning so Utah destinations are better equipped to handle large numbers and provide a quality experience.
The Stegner symposium, which concludes Friday, explores not only the economic benefits of outdoor recreation but also its negative impacts on the environment and communities as well its positive impacts on human heath and well-being.
“Being out in nature tends to make us a better version of ourselves,” said Stephen Lockhart, the chief medical officer of the Sutter Health medical network serving Northern California. He grew up with asthma in St. Louis, but his condition resolved as he spent more time in the woods and developed a passion for the outdoors.
“Do we want to spend more money on emergency rooms or plant more trees?” posed Lockhart, now on the board of NatureBridge. Lockhart, who is African-American, said it is time to broaden the image of outdoor recreation beyond the “rugged adventurer,” a meme that is predominantly white and male.
Jewell picked up on that theme in her remarks. She was distressed that access to the outdoors is largely the province of affluent whites.
“Many, many children in this country don’t have those experiences,” said Jewell, 63, who grew up sailing and hiking around Seattle before taking the helm at REI. “That is something we need to pay attention to because many children are growing up with no connection to nature and that opportunity to nourish their souls.”
Her presentation repeatedly returned to the Bears Ears controversy, which had a profound effect on Utah’s political climate. She noted that the state’s push to rescind the monument was the final straw that pushed the lucrative Outdoor Retailer show to decamp for Denver.
“It was a message to your politicians that you ignore [outdoor recreation] at your peril. I don’t think [Utah] Gov. [Gary] Herbert took that seriously,” Jewell said. “It was really too bad for Salt Lake. … You had a lot to gain by having O.R. here and a lot more to lose than your elected leaders recognized."
Correction • March 22, 2019, 2:05 p.m. • The lawsuits over Bears Ears National Monument have been administratively consolidated into one case while another combined case challenges President Donald Trump’s order reducing Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. An earlier version misstated the composition of these cases.