After Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, Where Will Trump’s War on Public Lands End?

This article originally appeared on this site.

On September 18, 1996, while seated somewhat incongruously at a wooden desk on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, President Bill Clinton signed a proclamation that established Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on 1.9 million acres of public land in south-central Utah. Invoking the Antiquities Act of 1906, Clinton declared the new monument to be the “smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected”—objects, in this case, including fossilized crocodilians, ancient petroglyphs, Mormon wagon routes, and a maze of remote and unutterably beautiful red-rock canyons.

This past Monday, more than twenty-one years later, President Donald Trump visited the Utah State Capitol with his own proclamation. He announced that Grand Staircase-Escalante would be reduced to roughly half its existing size, and that Bears Ears National Monument, established in the final days of the Obama Administration, would be shrunk by eighty-five per cent. “Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington,” Trump told the crowd in the capitol rotunda. “Guess what? They’re wrong.”

Like many of Trump’s statements, this one simplified an enemy for easy demolition. The real story of U.S. public lands is much more complicated, and much harder to contradict.

For the roughly two thousand supporters who attended the Grand Staircase-Escalante signing ceremony, in 1996, the monument was an expression of the same sort of foresight that had led President Theodore Roosevelt to protect the Grand Canyon, in 1908. It bestowed new prominence on a unique slice of the American landscape, inviting the public—not only in Utah but across the country—to recognize and take pride in its value.

Some Utah residents, however, immediately added the monument to their already long list of grievances against the federal government. That a President could, with the stroke of a pen and from a safe distance, restrict the uses of such a large piece of public acreage was seen as an insult and, in some cases, a threat to survival. (Clinton’s proclamation honored existing grazing leases but prohibited new development in Grand Staircase-Escalante, including a proposed coal mine.) In Kanab, Utah, just outside of the new monument’s borders, opponents wore black armbands and burned Clinton in effigy; schoolchildren released fifty black balloons as a symbolic warning to other states.

In the two decades since, over-all public opinion in Utah has shifted firmly in favor of the monument, and even some of its fiercest opponents have come to terms with it. While estimates of Grand Staircase-Escalante’s local economic effects vary, none shows significant negative impacts, and some suggest direct and indirect benefits from tourism. But when I visited Kanab, in 2003, seven years after the monument was created, Karen Alvey, the former mayor, immediately recalled a sense of loss. “The land wasn’t ours, but we felt like it was,” she told me. “It was as if we’d adopted a child, then been told we were no longer needed.” Such resentments still fester, even at the highest levels of government—in the Utah congressional delegation, and now in the White House.

The reality of the public lands is that they are owned by all of us—that the residents of Kanab have no more and no less say over the future of the Escalante River watershed than the residents of Gainesville or Seattle. The reality of the public lands is also that certain people are attached to certain places—by heritage, by history, by livelihood, by love. The Obama Administration, well aware of the local animus created by Clinton’s proclamation, strove to recognize both realities in its consideration of Bears Ears National Monument. Beginning in 2013, the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and other Administration officials held public hearings and worked with tribal representatives, state and local politicians, congressional staffers, and others in an attempt to resolve conflicting visions for the area. The monument created in December, 2016, which encompasses 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah, was based in part on a proposal made by representatives of five Native American tribes with ancestral and current ties to the region, and Obama’s proclamation established a tribal commission to guide management of the monument. (Ironically, as Jonathan Thompson, of High Country News, has pointed out, the new boundaries drawn by the Trump Administration appear to ignore both the tribal proposal and a competing proposal supported by many local officials and by U.S. Representatives Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop, both Republicans.)

The radical reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is almost certainly the beginning of a long legal fight. The Trump Administration argues that the Antiquities Act, which gives Presidents the power to create monuments, implicitly gives them the power to reduce their size, but tribes, environmental groups, and even the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology have already announced lawsuits against the Administration over the boundary changes. Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in a report released on Tuesday, has recommended that the Administration shrink two more national monuments and loosen grazing, hunting, and fishing regulations in a half-dozen others. Court decisions could eventually reduce not only the size of the monuments themselves but also the President’s power to establish permanent new protections for public lands.

Yet the future of these places—the canyons of the Escalante and the archaeologically rich sandstone mesas of Bears Ears—is unlikely to be settled in the courts. As President Roosevelt foresaw when he protected the Grand Canyon, and as President Clinton foresaw when he protected Grand Staircase-Escalante, a monument begins as a boundary on a map, and soon becomes something more. In the early nineteen-nineties, when I first started visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante, it was known only to ranchers and excessively curious backpackers; now it is a busier place, with champions throughout the West and beyond. Likewise, Bears Ears has already given new prominence to a collection of places long beloved by locals but little known elsewhere.

The Trump Administration’s recent review of twenty-seven existing national monuments elicited 2.8 million public comments, the vast majority urging that current monument boundaries be maintained. On Monday, after Trump’s announcement at the Utah Capitol, the clothing-and-gear company Patagonia, known for its environmental activism, ran a stark headline on its blacked-out home page: “The President stole your land.” The outdoor retailer REI posted a statement decrying “the largest rollback of protected lands in American history”; by Wednesday morning, a letter to Administration officials protesting the Bears Ears decision had been signed by three hundred and eighty scientists. Trump may find a way to erase the boundaries established by his predecessors, but he can’t erase the constituencies they inspired.