National Monument reductions are a slap in the face to scientists and First Americans
On Sept. 18, 1996, I stood less than 50 feet from President Clinton as he signed the proclamation creating Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which, at the time, was 1.7 million acres. It was a unique monument, one dedicated to scientific inquiry and intended to preserve the remarkable archaeological, paleontological and geological treasures in Garfield and Kane counties.
I never imagined that two decades later, I would be the only (and hopefully not the last) non-federal archaeologist working in the monument, and that hyper-partisanship in Congress would inspire a new president to shatter the dream of a monument dedicated to scientific inquiry,
When President Trump arrived in Salt Lake City in early December 2017 to slash the monument size by nearly half, I was sickened, not only by the threats facing our world-class archaeology, but by the falsehoods spewing from the mouths of our congressional delegation, state lawmakers, county commissioners and even our governor.
Utah Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden, gleefully tweeted that Trump’s actions had reversed the “onerous” burden of the national-monument designation. The lands were still protected by federal law, he chirped, but the weight of the monument had somehow been lifted.
Onerous? Pray tell, dear lawmaker.
Is it onerous to manage off-road vehicles to stay on designated trails? Nope. Is it onerous to remove noxious weeds and invasive species that threaten the natural environment? Nope. Is it onerous to manage livestock in such a way as to protect sensitive riparian areas? I think not.
Maybe he thinks it is onerous that household incomes have increased substantially since the monument designation as local economies shifted towards tourism.
The only thing I see that is “onerous” about the monument designation, at least to pro-development folks in Congress and our state Capitol, was a ban on new mineral extraction (existing operations were allowed to continue). And therein lies the motivations for Trump’s actions: He had campaigned to bring back coal jobs.
It was no secret that Clinton included the
Kaiparowits Plateau in the 1996 monument designation to block planned development of massive coal reserves on federal lands bordering Glen Canyon National Recreation area. Developers had been eying those reserves since the 1960s, only to be thwarted time and again by environmental regulations and/or changing economic realities.
The planned development would rear its head every few years, and then it would die. In 1996, the development had again sparked to life with the backing of a Dutch company. Local leaders had visions of unprecedented wealth flowing into county coffers.
Clinton killed that dream, and in so doing, he sparked a seething hatred toward the monument that persists two decades later.
Long before Trump’s rollback of the monument boundaries, the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance had begun developing a statistical model to predict where in the monument archaeological sites would be located and where they would be less likely to be found. The model allowed us to even predict what types of sites would be located in different environmental settings.
Here’s what we know so far: Before Trump did his black magic, there were 4,851 documented archaeological sites that had some modicum of enhanced protection due to the monument designation. After Trump’s designation, there were only 2,771 sites remaining in the shrunken monument. In other words, 43 percent of the archaeological sites within the old monument were deemed undeserving of monument protection under the new boundaries.
Trump eliminated large areas from the monument that have the highest potential for significant archaeological resources. How high? In the neighborhood of 100 sites per square mile—a density among the highest anywhere in the West. Places like Nephi Pasture, Kitchen Corral Canyon and Lampstand were deemed unworthy of monument protection, even though the quantity and quality of those sites are astounding both to casual hikers and scientists alike. And the Kaiparowits, where we have spent many summers documenting a plethora of high-elevation farming villages, is now reopened to coal development, even though some of the most scientifically important archaeological sites are located there.
The fate of Bears Ears National Monument is far, far worse. The 1.2-million-acre monument created by President Obama was to be managed according to tribal interests, making it unique among national monuments in that it recognized the importance of cultural landscapes to First Americans.
Trump gave those tribal interests the proverbial middle finger and shrunk the monument to 202,000 acres.
Our leaders on Capitol Hill had made the disingenuous argument, and apparently Trump bought it, that because only 10 percent of that area had been investigated by archaeologists that no one can say for sure if there were any archaeological sites in the other 90 percent, and it was simply federal overreach to protect something that might not be there.
Anyone who has spent more than a half day exploring that region—we used to call it Cedar Mesa—knows that claim is a bogus as a $3 bill. Every nook and cranny of that country is teeming with cliff ruins, granaries, farming hamlets on the mesa top, and rock art on the cliff walls.
In other words, the reduction to both monuments had nothing to do with archaeological sites (or any perceived absence thereof). But it had everything to do with appeasing Utah’s anti-federal resentment.
Jerry D. Spangler is executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to preserving archaeological sites on public lands, and is a past member of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Advisory Committee.