Bears Ears & Grand Staircase-Escalante Battles Continue
Plus the Colorado River Compact at 100
THE NEWS: The Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni — along with several conservation groups — move to intervene in two lawsuits seeking to remove protections from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in southern Utah. Mining and ranching interests, a motorized recreation advocacy group, two counties and the State of Utah filed the suits against the Biden administration in August. The tribal nations are seeking to defend President Joe Biden’s restoration of the national monuments’ original boundaries, which had been drastically diminished during the Trump-era.
THE CONTEXT: Sometimes it seems like Utah’s political leaders just don’t get it. I mean, the state’s greatest assets (in more ways than one) are the cultural and natural landscapes found in Canyon Country — the homeland of several tribal nations.
Most of those lands are public lands (which is to say, they were stolen from Indigenous peoples, put into the public domain, and were not homesteaded or “claimed” by settlers or miners, leaving them under federal management). And over the years various presidents have added layers of protection to portions of that land by wielding the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate national monuments, from Arches (1929) to Mukuntuweap aka Zion (1909) to Capitol Reef (1937) to Hovenweep (1923) to Canyonlands (1964) to Bears Ears (2016) to Grand Staircase-Escalante (1996). Many of these later became national parks through acts of Congress.
Now, thanks in large part to aggressive marketing by the state of Utah, these national parks and monuments, along with the public lands surrounding them, draw millions of visitors each year and fuel the economies of many a southeastern Utah community.
So it just seems bizarre that the state and some of those same communities would try not only to remove national monument protections from those landscapes, but also to eviscerate the Antiquities Act altogether, simply because they feel like the monuments are too large. They even rely on that worn-out, coastal trope of comparing the monuments’ sizes to East Coast states. As though that means anything. Really, Utah? Really?
And what happens when you protect that much public land? According to the lawsuit:
And while they may come from diverse backgrounds, every plaintiff faces the common prospect of President Biden’s proclamations destroying their livelihoods and upending their lives. The Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears Monuments have hurt local business, hollowed small towns, and separated Utahns from their family histories and religious traditions.
Okay, that is sad. But it’s also false. The plaintiffs’ declarations are filled with tales of woe about how worried they are about the potential impacts the national monuments may have on ranching or off-road-vehicle access or, well, religious traditions, whatever that means. Some say they have But there are virtually no facts to back them up.
One motorized recreation advocate, for example, declared in regards to Bears Ears:
Roads and trails are being closed, denying access. Favorite camping spots are being closed. Grazing permits are in jeopardy. Access to Elk Ridge, one of the community’s favorite destinations, seems likely to be closed or diminished.
Actually, none of this has happened — the monument’s management plan is still being formulated. Camp sites have not been closed as a result of the national monument designation. The monument proclamation grandfathers in existing grazing leases and leaves open the possibility of new ones, so no jeopardy there. And there is simply no basis for the absurd notion that monument managers would shut off access to Elk Ridge.
Another plaintiff claims that Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has destroyed local communities by making ranching untenable. But the fact is, the monument has had very little effect on grazing, aside from steering it away from a few sensitive riparian areas. There are just as many cattle grazing in the monument now as there were back in 1996, when it was designated, and the populations of Kane and Garfield Counties have grown steadily and substantially over the past three decades, for better or worse. Yes, there are costs to transitioning from extractive and agricultural economies to amenity, tourism, and recreation-based economies, for sure. But to blame the transition on (or credit it to) the monument designations just doesn’t work.
Furthermore, Bears Ears’ boundaries, especially, were drawn in such a way as to leave out the most viable oil and gas and uranium mining areas. Harts Point was left out, for example, as was Wingate Mesa south of White Canyon. And there are still millions of acres of federally managed land in southeastern Utah that don’t have special protections and where just about anyone can stake a 20-acre mining claim for a couple hundred bucks.
The tribal nations, by contrast, argue that the national monuments should be retained, writing in their motion to intervene:
For thousands of years, the tribal nations living in the southwest, including intervening Tribes, have cherished the Bears Ears National Monument region and held it as a sacred place. To this day, the Tribes use the region for many purposes: collecting plants, minerals, and waters for religious and medicinal purposes; hunting, fishing, and gathering; conducting ceremonies; and making offerings at archaeological sites. Indeed, some ceremonies use items that can only be harvested from Bears Ears. Bears Ears has long been and remains a home to the Tribes. Because of this importance, in 2015, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition was formed, which includes the Tribes here. The Coalition advocated for the Bears Ears region and the thousands of objects of unique historical, cultural, spiritual, and scientific importance therein to become a National Monument.
The national monument has to be the size of some East Coast state, and should be even larger, to adequately protect the “antiquities” contained therein. They are not discreet sites placed upon the landscape, but are cultural threads of community woven into the landscape. If you tried to simply draw a line around each cultural site individually, as the plaintiffs seem to suggest, the end result would be the same, since there are literally hundreds of thousands of such sites, which include everything from villages to granaries to kilns to fields to shrines to “roads” to plazas. So instead of just one monument covering a million acres, you’d have a million monuments covering a million acres (all theoretical, of course).
The case is likely to drag on for months or even years. In the meantime, the tribal coalition and federal land managers will continue working on the management plans. For more on the sticky issue of these national monuments (upgrade to paid to read the older archives):
The Colorado River Compact is 100
A century ago tomorrow, representatives from the seven states in the Colorado River Basin came together at Bishop’s Lodge, north of Santa Fe, and signed the Colorado River Compact. It was and still is a momentous occasion. It formed the foundation that undergirds the “Law of the River” — which governs the Colorado River to this day. And it opened the door to damming the Colorado River to moderate its wildly fluctuating flows and curtail flooding along the lower stretches of the river.
But that foundation is now crumbling, in part because it was shoddily put together in the first place. How can you equitably divvy up the river when the biggest players—the watershed’s 30 tribal nations—aren’t even factored or included in the negotiations? Oh, and also the signatories pretended the river held far more water than it actually did.
The Compact was based on a theoretical annual flow of 20 million acre-feet per year. In fact historically the river carried about 14.5 million acre-feet on average (and more like 17.3 million acre-feet during the unusually wet decade prior to the Compact’s ratification, with yearly flows ranging from 9.9 million acre-feet to 26.1 million acre-feet). Over the last decade the flows have dropped even lower, while consumption has remained steady, draining the reservoirs.
Why did they cook the books, so to speak? Because it cleared the way for the states to reach an agreement, which would allow the states to develop the river without worrying about getting sued. And, besides, they probably figured they’d never use anywhere near all that water. Little did they know.
Anyway, I’ve written about this often, and won’t go into it again, except to say that I think the damned thing should be tossed out and redone from scratch. That’s drastic, I know, and it won’t be easy: Amending the Compact is kind of like tinkering with the U.S. Constitution. But given the fundamental flaws that were baked into it from the beginning, I don’t see any other way.
This time all the stakeholders should be involved, especially the tribes. Whereas a century ago the signatories considered only agriculture, domestic uses, hydropower, and navigation as uses of the river, now we must also include wildlife, ecosystem services, industry, and recreation. The concepts of prior appropriation and beneficial use need to be reconsidered and overhauled so that the rivers, themselves, have the right to enough water to survive for centuries to come.
The plaintiffs in the Bears Ears case don’t include San Juan County because two out of three of the county commissioners supported the national monument designation (but they were not re-elected this year). So the plaintiffs instead include the off-road access group Blue Ribbon Coalition; Zeb Dalton, a Blanding rancher who was involved in the Gategate case in Valley of the Gods (read all about it in Sagebrush Empire); Kyle Kimmerle, whose family has staked some 300 mining claims throughout southeastern Utah, including inside Bears Ears National Monument; and Suzette Morris, a member of the White Mesa Ute Mountain Ute community.