SALT LAKE CITY — When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced a preliminary recommendation that contemplates shrinking the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument, one of the key points he emphasized is that some of the land is already subject to special management restrictions.
Zinke's interim report released Monday notes there are 11 wilderness study areas inside the monument that comprise 381,000 acres and are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The lands have to be in the same or better condition than they were 41 years ago to ensure Congress has the ability to invoke permanent wilderness protection.
That year is significant, 1976, when Congress passed the Federal Lands Policy Management Act that set up the majority of Utah's wilderness study areas — vast amounts of land that have remained in limbo since then.
There is also the Dark Canyon Wilderness of 46,353 acres on Forest Service land administered by that federal agency that has permanent wilderness status and is managed as such.
The BLM's resource management plan and maps of the region show that two-thirds of the land inside the 1.35-million acre monument is in some sort of protected status, withdrawn from mineral development.
That includes special recreation management areas, wilderness study areas and 48,000 acres of lands managed for wilderness and identified for protections after an exhaustive 1999 inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics inside Utah.
Bureau of Land Management | Aaron Thorup, Bureau of Land Management
What can you do in a wilderness study area and what's restricted?
In 2012, the BLM released a revised and more aggressive policy on management of the study areas, which allows nonmotorized, primitive recreational activities such as backpacking, horseback riding, rafting, fishing and hunting.
Zinke's preliminary recommendation asks Congress to clarify management practices of study areas within a monument's boundaries because he says the land uses under each designation may be at odds with each other.
In a study area, mechanized access is generally prohibited, except on already established routes, including mountain biking. Outright wilderness designations, such at Dark Canyon, prohibit mechanized access altogether, including equipment for fighting wildfires or watershed restoration — unless an emergency exception is granted.
Within the Bears Ears monument boundaries there are also special recreation management areas that include Grand Gulch and Cedar Mesa that have been withdrawn from potential mineral development and in some instances overlap lands that are being managed to protect wilderness characteristics.
No one appears to be particularly fond of wilderness study areas, but for vastly different reasons.
The Wilderness Society's Phil Hanceford, who is conservation director for the BLM Action Center, said those areas may be managed as wilderness now — but that could change with an act of Congress.
"They are absolutely vulnerable to going away," Hanceford said, adding that Zinke's preliminary directive for Congress to review their intent doesn't assuage any of those fears.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, called the study areas obnoxious because they include such wide discretion.
"A wilderness designation that is congressionally done is clearly wilderness," Bishop said.
Study areas just have to have some "characteristic," which he maintains can evolve from practically any landscape if it is left unattended for long enough.
"That is why it is such a concern for people in the counties and in states around the West," Bishop said. "Nobody who lives east of Denver knows what a (wilderness study area) is or cares about it."
Hanceford said if Utah had ever had a wilderness bill to permanently move the study areas into designated wilderness, the state might be ahead in the conservation game like some of its neighbors.
In Arizona, for example, there are only two wilderness study areas that total 46,000 acres. The majority were protected as permanent wilderness — 47 of them — at 1.4 million acres.
Utah, in contrast, has 86 wilderness study areas that encompass 3.2 million acres.
Bishop countered that the study areas are problematic in that they are de facto wilderness that subjugate multiple uses — putting other uses of the land like recreation or grazing at a disadvantage.
"I think Zinke is wise, very wise, to ask Congress to clarify these designations that should never have been been done by executive fiat," he said.
If a good chunk of the land inside the Bears Ears monument footprint already has management restrictions for wilderness quality, why is an official designation so critical for monument supporters?
Hanceford said a monument stitches protections for the landscape into one congruent fabric.
"The monument ties together the resources as a whole," he said. "We, as well as others, were pushing for a monument boundaries that were larger. The reason we were pushing for the boundary to be so large is to encompass all of the monument objects of interest."
Zinke said there is a definite need for protecting those objects of interest, referring to monument boundaries that would encircle high-density areas of cultural artifacts.
Groups such as Archaeology Southwest say that type of conservation approach misses the mark, and protecting the entire landscape preserves it for the ancient stories it tells.
Monument detractors, however, say some of that land has to accommodate the stories of other uses, including ranching, tourism and access via vehicle, the ability to fight fires and restore watersheds.
There are distinct management differences between a study area and one already protected as wilderness, according to federal agencies.
As an example, the operation of drones is not prohibited in study areas but is outlawed in permanent designations.
"That is a common misconception on the part of the public and others that they are managed the same, but there is quite a bit of discretion," said Allison Ginn, the National Conservation Lands program lead for the BLM in Utah.
"Our job as the executive branch is to make sure we don't constrain Congress' ability to ensure long-term management of these areas," Ginn said. "Many of these areas that exist are relatively undisturbed nature."
Zinke's preliminary recommendations point to the existing management as possibly protective enough.
He also added in Monday's teleconference that ultimately whatever decision is made, it has to come with land management resources to protect what is vital to tribes and other interests.
That means money on the ground.
Ginn said the visitor experience at places in southern Utah such as Bears Ears or Grand Staircase-Escalante are much different from what the public would encounter at national parks.
"These are essentially unmanaged lands where the visitor can decide what kind of experience they want as long as it is human-powered," she said.
Federal agencies such as the BLM and National Park Service are already in a budget shortfall for management of public lands — and there's no optimism that could change anytime soon.
Hanceford said his group, like others, encourage visitation to these wild places, push for conservation protections, and lobby for more money to put resources on the ground — a three-pronged approach.
Bishop said a monument designation doesn't come with anything beyond the paper it was written on, and management discretion and resources will come at the pleasure of a federal agency, subject to change at any time.
"Naming it a monument doesn't change the law (adding protections for cultural resources), and when they say a monument adds greater protections, that's crap," he said.
In the meantime, the landscape that is protected or not protected — depending on whom you talk to — is taking on new visitors because of the international debate over Bears Ears.
The BLM for years has been saying it is overwhelmed with the increased visitation to southern Utah, and resources have not increased.
Vandalism of cultural resources is a real risk by unknowing visitors. They don't know the difference between wilderness study areas, wilderness, special recreation areas, or what is managed by the BLM or Forest Service, or if it should matter. Where can they hike, four-wheel drive, hunt or camp?
Zinke's preliminary directive is under fire for its potential to unravel the monument designation. The battle cry is to protect the lands should the designation fall.
Like the land in Bears Ears — with its sandstone formations and wide-open canyons that have existed for millions of years, the forests and towering pines, barren stretches and rocky bluffs — the issue takes on many shapes.
"In the long term that is the idea, to have a conversation about what conservation looks like in the area for the future. And conversely what development would look like," Hanceford said.