Shrinking Bears Ears a travesty for many reasons

Deborah Gangloff
Deborah Gangloff

In May, referring to a report by the National Park Service, the Business Times quoted Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke saying, “This report is a testament to the tangible economic benefits our parks bring to communities across the nation.”
By June, Zinke ignored these benefits in his report to President Donald Trump.

There isn’t a lot of “there” there in Zinke’s review of Bears Ears National Monument (BENM) in Southeastern Utah. He recommends the BENM be shrunk and be broken into smaller pieces — but with shamefully little rationale to support such significant changes.

Although President Trump contended BENM was a “federal land grab,“  Zinke confirms most of the monument is already managed by federal agencies.

To justify shrinking BENM, Zinke says he wants to protect the lands important to Native American tribes for traditional rituals, gatherings and tribal practices. In fact, the monument already protects those uses. The first and strongest BENM proponent was a coalition of five tribes.

BENM protects more than 100,000 cultural sites attesting to centuries of human occupation. These resources are of tremendous value for research and are sacred places to the many tribes.

These unique cultural sites and breathtaking landscapes also bring tourists to the area. Here in Southwest Colorado, towns rely on visitors to the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park — as well as Bears Ears. “Heritage Tourism” is now a major economic driver in the Four Corners region. Mesa Verde alone welcomed more than 550,000 visitors last year who pumped $55 million in the local economy.  Well managed, heritage tourism is a job-creating, small business supporting, safe and non-polluting industry that leaves the area improved.

Zinke’s report calls for dramatically shrinking BENM boundaries. The 1905 Antiquities Act states the areas protected should be the “smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of those objects.” But with the highest density of archaeological sites in the country, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition proposed he monument be 500,000 acres more than it is.

How large should a place like the BENM be? What about the Grand Canyon’s 1.2 million acres? Or Death Valley’s
1.8 million
acres? President George W. Bush named our largest monuments, both  marine — the Rose Atoll at 8.5 million acres and Marianas Trench at 61 million acres.

Zinke proposes breaking up the BENM and protecting bits and pieces rather than keeping it whole. He should ask his land managing staff: Is it easier and most cost effective to manage a large area or lots of small parcels?

Native American heritage is irreplaceable — once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. How does this heritage measure up against rigs and wells? A surprise to many is there’s already a balance of uses: Existing drilling and mining in BENM will continue. Zinke’s vague promise that some future designations will protect certain areas is, at best, wishful thinking.

Trump called for a review of all monuments designated between 1996 and 2016 that were more than 100,000 acres and/or didn’t have “sufficient public input.” But all of us locals know that there was tremendous opportunity for public input — but not necessarily consensus. For example, Utah’s congressional delegation never supported the monument, even though most Utahans do.

Finally, Zinke recommends the BENM boundary be revised through “lawful exercise of the president’s authority granted by the (Antiquities Act). But under the Antiquities Act, only Congress, not the president, has the authority to abolish a national monument. Such action would mean lengthy, expensive lawsuits funded by taxpayers.

Not only would rescinding or resizing Bears Ears National Monument be legally unprecedented, it would violate the Antiquities Act that was signed into law 111 years ago by President Teddy Roosevelt, the father of our national parks.

Ironically, when Zinke became Interior Secretary, he called himself a “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist.” It’s a good thing Teddy’s not here to witness this travesty: He’d be rolling over in his grave.

Deborah Gangloff is president and chief executive officer of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, a not-for-profit organization in Cortez that strives to advance and share knowledge of the human experience through archaeological research, education programs and partnerships with American Indians. For more information, visit