The Trump administration is considering shrinking 10 national monuments or reducing their protections, potentially endangering forests in the Pacific Northwest, canyons in the Southwest, and coral reefs in the South Pacific. The changes were recommended by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in a secret memo to the White House that was leaked earlier this week. Reducing the size of national monuments significantly—by hundreds of thousands to millions of acres—would be an unprecedented move.
A less-noticed, yet critical, aspect of Zinke’s proposal is his recommendation that President Trump alter the management plans that have long protected US monuments. Agencies currently administer these lands in accordance with the National Environment Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, and other laws. But Zinke writes that this process has become “restrictive and difficult to navigate,” and suggests that the president loosen the standards at his “discretion,” presumably so that fracking, mining, logging, drilling, and other industrial activities can occur on the lands.
Of all the sites targeted by Zinke, the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah has been the most controversial. President Obama designated the 1.35 million-acre area in 2016, after a years-long process led by Native American tribes and wilderness advocates. Many of those groups are prepared to take the Trump administration to court if it follows Zinke’s recommendations. “It’s odd that the first, and most prominent, monument attacked is the first and only one ever developed and proposed by Native Americans,” said Natalie Landreth, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund who is representing some of the tribes that co-manage Bears Ears. She continued, “The [administration] can expect an active, fulsome debate on this.”
Long recognized as one of America’s oldest historical sites, the area encompassing Bears Ears is where the Clovis people lived 13,000 years ago. The landscape holds 100,000 archaeological sites, most of which have never been charted. They include the astonishing cliff-side houses built by the Anasazi in the 1500s; prehistoric rock panels created in 500 BC; and geological formations from 200 million years ago. Bears Ears is a magnet for scientists, historians, and tourists the world over. This summer, people fished the clear, cold San Juan River. Hikers scrambled from the top of sculpted red rocks to canyon floors. ATV riders, hunters, campers, climbers, and other nature lovers enjoyed other parts of this wilderness. Even cattle grazing and limited oil development are allowed on the monument site, too. But in October, the National Trust For Historic Preservation named this area one of the most “endangered” historical sites in America, because of more than a century of looting.
To the five tribes whose people have lived here for millennia—and whose reservations border Bears Ears—this place is more than a playground: It’s their ancestral and spiritual home. “What the politicians are doing is violating what’s sacred to us,” said Alfred Lomahquahu Jr., vice chairman of the Hopi Tribal Council. “Look at the Washington Monument or Arlington National Cemetery.” Those federally protected spots are revered by many, and rightly so, he said. Take the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, considered holy by dozens of lawmakers in Utah. “Our holy, sacred ground happens to be the big landscape out here,” said Lomahquahu, gesturing toward Bears Ears. “But people don’t understand that. Not honoring Bears Ears is against our religion. And it’s racist,” he added.