Continuing a trend of dismantling his predecessor’s deeds, Donald Trump recently called for the reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. Established as protected public lands by former presidents Obama and Clinton respectively, Bears Ears stands to be downsized from 1.35 million acres to 201,876 acres, while Grand Staircase will go from 1.86 million acres to 1 million under the proposed boundary revisions. If upheld by a federal court, the substantial slicing of these areas will constitute the largest reduction of public-lands protection to ever take place in the U.S., a move the current administration deems justifiable under the American Antiquities Act of 1906. Needless to say, this step is incredibly alarming to activists who question whether the president is taking liberties with the law on the basis that the act “does not explicitly give authority to presidents to reduce the size of national monuments,” the Washington Examiner reports.
“What the president has purported to do is outside the scope of his authority,” said Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch. “We think the law is clear.”
Specifically, opponents of the land reduction regard the changes as a threat to environmental conservation and a gross encroachment on a space that Indigenous peoples consider sacred. Meanwhile, the president appeared to suggest that the monuments impeded public access when he addressed a crowd in Salt Lake City.
“Public lands will once again be for public use because we know that people who are free to use their land and enjoy their land are the people most determined to conserve their land,” he said.
However, environmental justice activist and director of HBCU Green Fund Felicia Davis explains to Playboy that designating national monuments as protected lands serves everyone.
“When Muir and Roosevelt established Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalate national monuments, their goal was to preserve the most significant natural landscapes unspoiled for generations to come. Great presidents take a long view of history, establishing legacies that live on,” Davis says.
Although the president views the reduction as a way to eliminate current “restrictions on hunting, ranching and responsible economic development,” Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert denies any intention to use the space for mining, drilling or wholesale development, swiftly dismissing those suggestions as “scaremongering.” But without limits that protect the monuments, Davis expresses concern that the area’s resources will indeed be exploited.
“In the absence of limits, a few people tend to exploit valuing short-term individual gain without regard for the long-term ramifications of development,” she says, emphasizing that unlike the Indigenous people’s practices, the government’s plans to use the land are not sustainable. Additionally, the area holds significance for many tribes whose cultural and spiritual investment in the national monuments cannot be compared to a quantifiable commodity.
“Sadly, little respect is given to the spiritual beliefs of Indigenous peoples. It is difficult for others to understand or appreciate the regard that tribes have for ancestors because death is finite in mainstream American culture,” Davis explains. “Honoring one’s ancestors anchors the past to the future and actually creates a living legacy. Many Native Americans view land as a shared commons that in reality cannot be owned. In light of all of the broken treaties and heinous abuses inflicted by the government, respecting sacred land should be a national priority.”
A common concern is that what’s happening with Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is just the beginning of a pattern of the government rescinding protected land designations, a plan that’s apparently already being hashed out by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Meanwhile, the land reduction has spawned boycotts and a lawsuit from Native American tribes and a conservation group who hope that their voices can cut through the vague boundaries that lie between the government and the public’s best interests.