We’re finally starting to get an idea of what might be in store for the Bears Ears National Monument, and it isn’t pretty.
First, The Salt Lake Tribune used documents obtained through open records requests to reveal the state’s behind-the-scenes recommendation to wipe out more than 90 percent of the current monument, protecting a peanut-shaped 120,000 acres around the Bears Ears Buttes.
Then, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s secretive report to President Donald Trump finally leaked, including its recommendations that Bears Ears be shrunk and a handful of other monuments be reduced in size or revised.
There really are four big takeaways:
1. The state isn’t serious about protecting antiquities
Hardly any — less than 10 percent — of the total Bears Ears monument has actually been inventoried by archaeologists since the 1930s, but what they’ve found so far is a stunning array of irreplaceable historic sites.
They’ve documented 8,480 known sites — that means ruins or clusters of artifacts like pots or other items. The vast majority of them date back to before the 1800s and more than two-thirds of the known sites that have been evaluated would qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
It would be reasonable to assume that there could be tens of thousands more priceless antiquities in the unstudied areas of Cedar Mesa and Indian Creek. There are well-documented instances of looting inside the monument, even though Rep. Mike Noel blames badgers for the thefts. Really.
But the state has told Zinke it wants just a tiny fraction of those priceless relics protected under monument status.
I’m not arguing that 1.35 million acres is the perfect size or will protect every pot in the region. But a 120,000-acre monument, like the state proposed, would leave vast swaths of history without protection.
Even San Juan County commissioners, no fans of federal land management, recognized the value of Cedar Mesa when they included it in their early 422,000-acre monument proposal in February.
2. The governor wants it both ways
Gov. Gary Herbert argued recently that monument designations, as he put it, place a target on sensitive areas and are magnets for tourists who could damage or steal the relics.
He’s not wrong.
But the governor is still proposing a monument on a smaller scale and in an area that contains some of the highest concentrations of artifacts. So the tourist attraction and subsequent risk doesn’t go away.
To make matters worse, Herbert also proposed two national recreation areas, one in Cedar Mesa and the other in Indian Creek. Recreation areas, as you may have pieced together on your own, are designed to be places where people go to recreate. Most of the existing recreation areas are in highly trafficked areas where people go boating or four-wheeling — think Lake Mead or Glen Canyon around Lake Powell.
A miniscule monument and two large recreation areas would create as much — if not more — tourism in the area and provide far fewer protections, including potentially allowing off-road vehicles. It would be an absolute nightmare for the antiquities the governor says he’s so worried about protecting.
3. There are no real energy resources anywhere in Bears Ears
Last session, the Utah Legislature called for the repeal of the Bears Ears Monument citing, among other reasons, the way it would impede the plentiful energy extraction, sapping revenue that otherwise could flow into the state’s school system.
But one of the most striking things when you look at the state’s Bears Ears maps is how, aside from a band of uranium deposits north of the buttes, there really are no energy or mineral resources to speak of anywhere inside the monument — no coal, no oil, no gas, not even any potash.
You can see the area speckled with oil wells that have been drilled over the years, but the oil just isn’t there.
Then you look east, over Comb Ridge that forms the boundary for the monument, and it is a bonanza. It’s almost like, when the monument was designated, the boundaries weren’t arbitrary and the Interior Department drew the borders to avoid damaging the potential jobs and wealth in the county.
Neat how that works, right?
The information in the map undermines the argument the monument is costing San Juan County and the state jobs — but that doesn’t mean they’ll stop complaining about it.
4. Zinke still hasn’t done his homework
I’d been warned for more than a month by people in “the know” that Zinke’s report was going to be a dud — the Interior Department is still missing too many top people and was too short-staffed to take on an actual review.
And it was.
Zinke’s leaked memo reads like a term paper a D-plus high schooler would have slapped together the night before it was due. It dutifully rehashes all the anti-monument talking points, dismisses the public sentiment in favor of national monuments generally and sprinkles in some pretty glaring misstatements — like how a New Mexico monument abuts the U.S.-Mexico border and creates border control issues, even though it was drawn to be five miles away from the border, or that it limits traditional sacred uses in Bears Ears, even though it specifically does not.
It doesn’t include specific suggestions for boundaries or scale of any revisions to existing monuments. That work apparently still needs to be done.
Maybe the aim was to buy some time, but really what it does is wastes time. We all know President Donald Trump is going to shrink the monuments and we all know it will result in a flurry of lawsuits. So get on with it.
The sooner the courts decide the matter, the sooner we can get serious about protecting the American Indian artifacts in Bears Ears that, until then, are in peril.