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Opinion: Expanding national monuments could undermine true conservation efforts

If monuments like Bears Ears are weaponized, Utahns will be further excluded from decision-making processes

Caroline Gleich attends party to watch President Joe Biden restore the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
Activist Caroline Gleich carries a sign at a watch party at the Radisson Hotel in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021, to view President Joe Biden sign a proclamation in Washington restoring Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments to their original boundaries.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Protecting public lands, including national monuments, is a cornerstone value of America’s conservationist ethos. There’s inherent value in preserving artifacts and sacred landscapes for the public’s enjoyment. Unfortunately, environmentalists and their allies in Washington are weaponizing these designations to further restrict public access.

In October, President Joe Biden announced an executive order restoring two national monuments in Utah — Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante — to their pre-2016 size. In 2017, Ryan Zinke, then-President Donald Trump’s first interior secretary, after conducting a review, recommended significantly downsizing the two areas to give more access and management power to the locals who care. This was a good decision, based on a lot of local input. But today it’s been reversed, with both monuments bloated to more than 1 million acres each.

The Antiquities Act of 1906, a seminal law, stipulates that presidents can establish monuments from existing public lands that “shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” It’s hard to see how seizing control of millions of acres of land is in keeping with the spirit of restraint embedded in the law.

While many environmentalists are heralding Biden’s land grab as a win, this move could potentially undermine true conservation efforts going forward. Designating large tracts of land without any given parameters is not always in the best interest of safeguarding artifacts and fragile naturescapes.

One unintended consequence of enlarging national monuments is how this limits recreational opportunities for sportsmen and women — the biggest contributors to conservation funding in the U.S. In 2020, outdoorsmen funded $1.1 billion in conservation efforts. That’s the kind of giving the government should be encouraging, not discouraging by restricting access.

Local conservation managers, such as state agencies, play a critical role managing species and their habitats. Restricting hunting access could result in wildlife populations spinning out of control. In addition, it undermines principles of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, a code of ethics that considers wildlife a public resource. What’s the point of public land if it’s out of reach to the general public?

With regard to the two Utah monuments, the Biden administration refused to consult all local stakeholders. In fact, the president shunned input from the governor of Utah.

“President Biden’s decision to expand the monuments is disappointing, though not surprising,” reads a letter from Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Attorney General Sean Reyes, state Senate President Stuart Adams and state House Speaker Brad Wilson. “Our goal has been to make lasting progress on managing our public lands for the benefit of all those who use them, particularly those who live on and near those lands.”

In contrast, it’s unclear if Biden has any goals beyond scoring political points. Take Bears Ears, for example: Biden’s proclamation doesn’t even offer assurances that this monument will be protected. He hasn’t made any additional financial resources available to maintain the newly enlarged area, and the resources currently maintaining the monument won’t be enough. This could make it difficult for caretakers to counter opportunistic looters and tourists who blatantly disregard these sacred spaces.

The Deseret News editorial board lambasted the executive order along these lines, suggesting Biden “gave little consideration to the concerns many Utah leaders and others expressed in hearings about the large footprints of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.”

If key stakeholders are shut out from debate, as was the case here, it could breed further disdain for federal public lands. That would be a travesty.

Is this Biden’s idea of “Building Back Better”?

Unilateral designations like these foster distrust between Washington, D.C., and the western United States. If presidents disregard the powers prescribed to them under Section II of the Antiquities Act, they won’t receive cooperation from those on the ground.

In March, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts warned about presidents “exercising power without any discernible limit” with respect to creation of national monuments. We should heed his warning. It’s time for Congress to step in to prevent further abuses of the law in states like Utah.

Interestingly, Biden remarked, “The protection of public lands must become — must not become, I should say — a pendulum that swings back and forth depending on who’s in public office.”

It is the 46th president, however, who is using this issue as a political football to appease special interest groups that reside outside of Utah such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

National monuments play an integral role in our conservation heritage. But if they are weaponized, Utahns will be further excluded from decision-making processes.

Gabriella Hoffman is a Young Voices contributor and host of the District of Conservation podcast.