Generally, it is not a good idea for any civilization to willfully forget any part of its history. Even the bad parts. Especially the bad parts.
But in the case of two major national monuments that stand within the borders of the state of Utah, the best thing we could do might be to forget that the last four years ever happened.
Reports out of Washington suggest this is, in effect, what Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is recommending to President Joe Biden for the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Just erase the unwise and almost certainly illegal actions taken by the Trump administration to shrink each of those monuments and put them back the way they were.
And then, in the case of Bears Ears, get busy doing the things that are supposed to go with monument status. Come up with the plans and the funding to protect the land and make its history and beauty available, carefully, to all.
Bears Ears was created in the waning days of the Obama administration, in the name of the Antiquities Act, at the long and heartfelt behest of five Native American tribes with ancestral links to the area, tribes that mounted an unprecedented display of unity toward a common goal.
At 1.3 million acres, it wasn’t quite as large as the Navajo, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni and Hopi nations were hoping for. But it was a significant step toward the preservation, not just of a lot of rocks, but of territory that was and remains central to the life and culture of these nations.
Utah’s political class — clinging to absurd notions of how the land should be for drilling and mining — objected and convinced Donald Trump to slash Bears Ears into two much smaller monuments, removing 85% of the protected area. While they were at it, they also got Trump to carve up Grand Staircase, a 1.9 million acre monument established in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, into two much smaller enclaves together about half the size of the original designation.
Both monuments should have been left alone.
Grand Staircase is no longer an upstart or a surprise. It is an established territory that has sparked a local economic ecosystem of outdoor recreation and hospitality that could only be damaged by the violence Trump did to its integrity.
And the original Bears Ears was no real loss to anyone, as its potential for any kind of extractive economy activities was small to none.
If, as reportedly recommended, Biden restores that monument to its original size and shape, the feds, the state, the tribes and the other residents of the area could finally be about the business of making, and paying for, real management plans to protect the area. To feed the spiritual rights of Native nations and guide the tourist trade in ways that draw revenue without destroying the place.
Some of the Native boosters of Bears Ears might have allowed themselves to hope that Haaland and Biden would take advantage of the opportunity to make that monument even larger. But, while there is an appeal to that, the cleanest path would be for Biden to adopt the legal argument that national monuments, once set, are not subject to being destroyed or significantly shrunk by a subsequent president, as the Antiquities Act makes no provision for such changes.
In other words, as with so much of what went on between 2017 and 2021, what happened to those monuments was all just a bad dream.
Opponents of the monuments in particular, and of the Antiquities Act in general, say a proper resolution to the matter would be some kind of congressional action to designate permanent boundaries and management for both of those monuments.
But, no matter what Biden winds up doing with Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, Congress would still have the prerogative to step in and legislate a lasting resolution.
If, that is, Congress ever finds itself able to make a decision on anything. And if members of Congress from Utah would be able to come up with a plan that would be acceptable to members of Congress from New York, Vermont, California and everywhere else. Members of Congress who represent the 99% of the American people who, just as much as Utahns, own those monuments, even as they owe respect to the spiritual claims of the Native Americans who were there first.
If our members of Congress really want to do what’s best for all the public lands that fall within Utah’s borders, they should make the case that the owners of those territories should meet their responsibilities to maintain the monuments, finance the forests and make the Mighty 5 national parks in our state as mighty as they deserve to be.