In January 2021, President Joe Biden sided with overwhelming public opinion to review former President Donald Trump’s unprecedented 2017 downsizing of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments. Dismantling the monuments opened two great American landscapes to coal mining and oil and gas drilling after they were set aside for their outstanding natural, cultural, and scientific resources. Grand Staircase-Escalante was shrunk by half, and Bears Ears was whittled to only 15% of its original size.
This move was not only unprecedented, but bad science, bad conservation policy, an attack on Indigenous culture, damaging to local economies and illegal. And it was a move against public interest — with nearly three-quarters of Utahns supporting restoring these national monument protections.
As Utah awaits a visit from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland this week to meet with local stakeholders and review the boundaries of our national monuments, it is imperative our state and federal leaders take into mind the long-term benefits these places provide to Utahns, all Americans and future generations. At both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, Secretary Haaland should urge President Biden to honor the original boundaries that were designated to protect sacred land and preserve insights into the Earth’s past on some of the most unspoiled terrain in the country.
Bears Ears lands are sacred to the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe. The original 1.9 million-acre monument proposal came from these tribes — as the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. For the first time ever, Native people led the way in achieving a 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. The Inter-Tribal Coalition engaged patiently to have their religious freedom and hunting and gathering rights recognized, and to have their traditional knowledge and Indigenous science incorporated into the management of Bears Ears. That recognition and right must be returned to them.
Scientists are enthusiastic about the prospect of having the full range of these two monuments protected once again. National monuments play a crucial role in maintaining the integrity of archaeological sites in the American West and preserving important Native American artifacts. Over 3,500 paleontological sites have been discovered in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument since 1996, and that number reflects only a small fraction of the monument having been inventoried to date. Restored, we have the capacity to preserve a scientific and historical record that exists nowhere else on Earth.
The former president’s dismantling of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase was also a blow to the businesspeople who make a living in the Escalante-Boulder region. Three new lodging facilities had just opened, and two more were under construction to accommodate increasing visitation to Escalante. We had been building for more than two decades since the birth of Grand Staircase-Escalante, and suddenly our economic health was at risk.
Grand Staircase-Escalante has also created diversity in our economy. Software professionals who work remotely, retirees and farmers have all been drawn to this area where they invest economically and in the futures of their families. While many factors play a part in a region’s growth, the small family-owned businesses in our gateway communities can attribute much of their success to the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — a protected landscape that attracts visitors from around the world.
For the past four years, outdoor recreation, Indigenous values and the economic health of local communities have taken a back seat to the former president’s drive for energy dominance. Such threats to outstanding landscapes from industry and development are exactly why Theodore Roosevelt signed the original Antiquities Act in 1906. Roosevelt believed that some places should be left untouched, where drilling should not be allowed and fossil fuels, and notions of “energy dominance” should take second place. He would surely approve of full protection for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase.
No national monument should be undone by a subsequent president. We must make sure to permanently secure this wisdom that keeps our national monuments safe for the long-term preservation of these irreplaceable landscapes.
John Holland is the board president of Grand Staircase Escalante Partners and resides in Tropic, Garfield County.