The first thing you notice about the map showing President Donald Trump’s new boundaries for Bears Ears National Monument is shrinkage. The designation is reduced by 1.15 million acres, leaving just over 200,000 acres of monument divided into two big units and two tiny units. It’s shocking, but not surprising.
Look closer, however, and you’ll see something else: The proposed new boundaries are a little strange. And I suspect that even the most virulent anti-monument Utahns will find the portions peculiar as well.
Imagine you’re the Interior lackey tasked with drawing the new boundaries. You have to slash a bunch of acreage from the monument. You’ll want to make it appear, at least, as if the administration really cares about the “local control” Trump spoke so glowingly of in his shrinkage proclamation in Salt Lake City on Dec. 4. In San Juan County, Utah, that generally means opening public lands to unfettered access by motorized vehicles, livestock and extractive industries. Meanwhile, you’ll be quite aware that before the ink is dry on that proclamation, it’s going to get pummeled by a barrage of lawsuits. So you’ll need to make the boundaries legally defensible.
Starting from scratch, this would be a difficult job. But when it comes to Bears Ears, most of the work was already done a few years ago. During the Public Lands Initiative process, Republican Rep. Rob Bishop attempted to reach a “grand bargain” to end Utah’s land wars. In meeting after meeting San Juan County stakeholders hashed out a proposal for the county’s public lands, finally submitting a map including two National Conservation Areas: one covering all of Cedar Mesa and some surrounding areas, and another in Indian Creek, which is a popular rock-climbing area. From a conservationist’s point of view, the PLI proposal was sorely lacking, mostly because of the sensitive or valuable lands that were left unprotected. That was hardly surprising. After all, the process was headed by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, the same guy that was tossed in the clink for ushering Ryan Bundy and his gun-toting militia mob down Recapture Canyon among sensitive cultural resources on ATVs.
If you’re a Trump administration official trying to meet the aforesaid objectives, however, the original PLI maps provide a pretty good blueprint. And yet, by the looks of things, those locally produced maps were largely ignored in the drawing of the new boundaries.
The locals had proposed blanketing with a conservation area all of Cedar Mesa, which is dense with archaeological sites and has always been the true heart of the effort to protect the cultural and natural landscapes of southeastern Utah. Virtually all of the mesa, however, was left out of the Trump boundaries. Much of the land there is already protected by Wilderness Study Areas, making a monument somewhat redundant. That also makes it a no-brainer for inclusion in a Trump-altered monument, since access would not be lost, yet it still could count as monument-protected acreage, which could be useful in court. Instead, large swaths of land outside the WSAs or primitive areas—land containing archaeological sites and other valuable features—will again be open to oil and gas leasing, and more vulnerable to motorized and other recreation, if the shrinkage stands.
Meanwhile, areas that the PLI process deliberately left unprotected, mostly because they’re popular for motorized recreation, were included in the Trump boundaries. One such area is Arch Canyon, which begins on Elk Ridge near the Bears Ears and empties into Comb Wash. It retained protection because it contains a number of archaeological sites, including a Chacoan “Great House” near its mouth and associated prehistoric “road” segments. Flannelmouth suckers, a threatened species, ply the water of the little stream here, as well. In the past, Arch Canyon has been a flashpoint of the motorized access debate, with locals vehemently opposing any effort to shut out ATVs and the like. Arch Canyon was pointedly left out of the PLI conservation areas for this reason. While monument status won’t automatically close the route to motorized vehicles, it certainly makes closure more likely, so it’s surprising that local motorheads aren’t bristling at the prospect of being “locked out” by monument officials.
It’s tempting to look for hidden motives in the shrunken boundaries’ peculiarities. Could Trump be setting the stage for Bishop to swoop back in with his PLI and save Cedar Mesa? Was the administration sloppy with its boundary-drawing because it secretly hopes to lose the coming court battle, thus preserving Trump’s power to declare his own national monuments? There’s probably no such strategy. Trump’s motive, as in so much of his policy, is to erase as much of Barack Obama’s legacy as he can. In this case, he’s unlikely to succeed. And when it comes to legacies, someone might want to remind Trump that a president is remembered not for what he destroys, but for what he creates.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.