Bears Ears Loses Monument Status: Trading Protection for Destruction

Seamus Crowley, Maroon-News Staff

On Friday, February 2, land that formerly belonged to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah officially had its federal protections removed. The monument was reduced in size by 85 percent, totaling over one million acres of land. This was a result of President Trump’s call for a review of the national monuments that have acquired their designation through the 1906 Antiquities Act, a move that sparked controversy among environmental groups. No monument designation had ever been reduced to this extent before (The Washington Post). The ramifications of shrinking Bears Ears are vast, and none of them are positive for the environment.

The revocation of national monument status for Bears Ears will result in environmental and cultural harm. The land stands to suffer due to the transition from a national monument to a generic public land, wherein certain regulations are no longer enforced. For instance, when Bears Ears held monument designation, the amount of access that individuals had throughout the land was able to be restricted. When visitors were regulated as to where they could travel the damaging impacts of motorized vehicle use could be limited, and thus the land as whole could maintain the integrity of its ecosystem. Furthermore, the limited access protected the culture of local Native American tribes by keeping sacred sites and extensive amounts of historical artifacts out of the hands of looters and vandals. With these weaker restrictions, both the ecosystem and native populations stand to lose something to degradation by unregulated human influence (The Wilderness Society).

Yet, the hazards of the deregulation of access pale in comparison to the possible consequences of oil, gas and mining operations beginning in Bears Ears. Those in favor of removing monument status, including President Trump, argue that this move is not motivated by an interest in bolstering the extractive resource industry. Instead, they claim monument designation is an example of the federal government abusing its power. Thus they believe that monuments should have federal protections removed. However, in the first week without monument designation, there has been no mining interest in Bears Ears’. The State of Utah has not received any mining claims seeking to extract resources from the Bears Ears area since it became open for business (The Washington Examiner). However, a lack of interest in mining development at the moment does not prove that this was not part of the motive for the rollback of Bears Ears’ monument status, because the option for natural resource development and extraction still exists moving forward.

The uranium mining industry is the most likely to utilize the newly available land due to ore deposits in the area. However it is not currently economical to mine uranium at this location given the low market price of the element (The Wilderness Society). But, President Trump has actively supported nuclear power during his time in the Oval Office, and is working to expand operations in the U.S. (NY Times). Thus, given more nuclear power development, and presidential support, Bears Ears may become the site of intensive extraction practices. The impacts of uranium mining in the area would result in degradation to the ecosystem given the pollutive nature of the extraction process. This would also negatively impact the health of the surrounding populations, many of which are Native American tribes, due the high potential for contamination of the local water, land and air.

The rhetoric surrounding the rollback of protections for Bears Ears and the precedent that it sets could be even more damaging to the environment in the future than the potential impacts in Bears Ears alone. With this move, President Trump set an example for America’s public lands that no monument is safe. It emphasizes that the leaders of our nation believe the extractive resource industry is more important than the health and prosperity of our most important landscapes and their inhabitants.

Contact Seamus Crowley at [email protected].