I have worked for environmental causes and advocated for wild places most of my life and there’s one constant in every debate about how to best make use of public lands. The politicians who want to take these wild places away from you are rarely straightforward. When they want to open up land to say a Canadian mining corporation or a private developer they won’t just come out and say it. Instead, they couch the argument in platitudes about freedom, access and sovereignity—all the while limiting them. By and large, conservationists are open about what they want: better protection of these wild places for their own sake, smart use, recreation and the enjoyment of future generations. Those who oppose conservation are very good at convincing locals who are wary of the federal government that their land is being stolen, while they put up the fences, drills and no trespassing signs.
That frustrating double-talk came to a head when President Trump announced he would drastically shrink Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments by an unprecedented two million acres last month. No surprise, the administration crowed that the move was meant to return local control. The NRA immediately praised the cut, claiming that Trump was returning access to public lands in Utah and letting hunters and other good old Americans back on their lands.
Nothing could be further from the truth. National monuments prioritize the protection of cultural and scientific resources within their borders. They allow hunting, grazing, mountain biking and a host of other recreational and traditional uses as long as they don’t impact those resources. So you can still shoot chukars in a national monument; you just might not be allowed to drive your ATV over a Native American sacred site to do so. No, the real reason the administration and some local politicians want to shrink the monument is not to better protect those sacred sites or to improve the hunting. It’s mining.
The areas of Bears Ears that have been cut out of the monument correspond to mineral deposits. The Washington Post even reported that Energy Fuels Resources (USA) Inc., a subsidiary of a Canadian firm, lobbied the administration to cut the monument so it could dig up uranium. The section cut out of Grand Staircase holds coal deposits, along with invaluable fossils.
There are plenty of valid reasons to listen to locals who live around the monument. But again, the politicians opposing conservation have been disingenious. Some of the most important conservationists in the U.S. are Utah locals. Think vocal authors and native Utahans Terry Tempest Williams and Brooke Williams or Protect Our Winters amabassador Caroline Gleich who testified in favor of the monument. There’s Blake Spalding who owns Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah, on the border of Grand Staircase. And Utah photographer Dan Ransom, who has spent more time deep in many of these canyons than most who would mine it and call it their birthright. Most importantly, five Native American tribes, the people who make up the majority of local residents with ancestral claims here, came together to create Bears Ears in a process that included overwhelming public support. Maybe we should listen to the locals.