Monumental Impacts on Western Stakeholders

Oct 23, 2020  | 6 min  | Ep4610

Elections have consequences.

Some are visible on day one, others take more time to sort.

For those in the middle of a generations-long cultural debate, the back and forth over western land use can be a monumental task.

Josh Buettner reports in our Cover Story.

On his way out of office, lame-duck President Barrack Obama proclaimed 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah a national monument.  Bears Ears, named for distinctive twin buttes towering over San Juan County’s diverse high desert landscape, was the first monument created at the request of - and in collaboration with - a coalition of various Native American governments.

President Donald Trump: “Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington.  And guess what? They’re wrong.”

While Obama’s move was hailed by archaeologists and conservationists for protecting the region’s myriad cultural and natural sites, one year later President Trump shrank Bears Ears by 85 percent and split the monument into two non-contiguous sites – Shash Jaa and Indian Creek.  Critics warned former protected lands could be opened up for fossil fuel and mineral development.

President Donald Trump: “…modifying the Bears Ears National Monument.”

Trump’s action drew the ire of local tribal constituents who consider the area sacred.  A handful of various stakeholder lawsuits, alleging presidential overreach, spun up and were consolidated into one case by a federal judge. 

Shaun Chapoose/Ute Indian Tribe: “You want to make America great?  Then why aren’t you talking to the first Americans?  I’m here to tell you – if it’s a fight they want, it’s a fight they’re going to get.”

Though local leadership initially supported the Trump Administration, voter backlash over partisan gerrymandering gave way to the San Juan County Commission’s first ever Native American majority in 2018 – who promptly reversed course.

However, judicial backlog and coronavirus have litigants still awaiting their day in court. 

Former Vice-President Joe Biden:  “So many lives have been lost unnecessarily because this president cares more about the stock market…”

Some hope a Biden win in November could bend circumstances in their favor, but others warn of a breaking point.

Josh Ewing/Executive Director – Friends of Cedar Mesa: “This ping-pong back and forth between maybe a conservative president and a liberal president, and going back and forth…  That’s not good for the land.  You know, the land should not be political football.”

Josh Ewing is Executive Director of Friends of Cedar Mesa – a grassroots organization founded in 2010 to support regional public land use.  Based in Bluff, Utah, the group’s Bears Ears Education Center helps enlighten tourists drawn to a massive county larger than some states on the eastern seaboard combined.  Ewing also describes San Juan as the most archaeologically rich county in the U.S.

Josh Ewing/Executive Director – Friends of Cedar Mesa, Bluff, Utah: “People aren’t used to just walking up to a cliff dwelling, walking up to a 2000 year old pictograph.  They need to know how to behave in those sensitive areas.  Archeological sites are easily damaged and once they’re damaged, they can’t be recreated.”

Tyler Ivins/Blanding Utah: “So this is the edge of our permit. We run all the way up this canyon.”

Shawn Ivins/Blanding Utah: “Everything inside of these rims is part of the monument.”

The vastness of San Juan County is one reason ranchers Tyler and Shawn Ivins breathed a sigh of relief upon Trump’s rollback.  The brothers run 300 head of cattle on mountain and desert allotments within Obama’s previous proclamation area.

Tyler Ivins/Blanding Utah: “So these are Anasazi ruins.  They’re all over San Juan County.  There are thousands of them.  To put it into perspective, one acre is 210 feet by 210 feet square, which would more than protect that area or that site. And if there were 100,000 of them, that would be 100,000 acres.  And they wanted to take 13 times that, which is 1.3 million acres.  In our opinion, that’s overkill.  You know it takes in a lot of area that doesn’t have a lot of bearing on it.”

Over half of Utah’s iconic landscapes already fall under federal oversight, and the Ivins’ say adding to the management backlog is unsustainable.  Some locals have gotten to work developing the area to capture more tourist dollars.  Others hope recent bipartisan passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, with $3 billion in annual conservation and maintenance funds spread nationwide, also brings some relief.

Gary Torres/Field Manager/Bureau of Land Management/Monticello, Utah: “We have counters out there, trail counters, and we’ve seen an uptick in visitation.”

Over 20 million acres of Utah’s public lands fall under the purview of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which helps coordinate land use among various stakeholders, overseeing anything from motorized activities to hunting, hiking or administering grazing permits.

Gary Torres/Field Manager/Bureau of Land Management/Monticello, Utah: “I’m a big advocate of multiple use.  I think it’s a great principle for the American public.  It allows us to all play in the same sandbox essentially.”

Gary Torres is Field Manager for the BLM, based out of the agency’s local Monticello office.  He says while President Obama designated Bears Ears a national monument, there was never enough time for a formal management plan to be drawn up before the Trump Administration began calling the shots. 

Gary Torres/Field Manager/Bureau of Land Management/Monticello, Utah: “We had our marching orders, we know what we needed to do.  You know, BLM does this all the time – planning.  We plan for public lands.”

Whether Trump’s monument rollback in San Juan County is ultimately upheld or thrown out by the courts, Torres says great care was taken by BLM in public meetings with input from a diverse range of collaborators.

Gary Torres/Field Manager/Bureau of Land Management/Monticello, Utah: “We need to be respectful of each other’s activities and we need to manage those resources so they’re here for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  And I think that’s the beauty of multiple use and sustained yield is that we are trying to do things that make sense now, and for the future.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.


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