SALT LAKE CITY — A new analysis celebrates the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah for having one of the most ecologically intact landscapes in the West, pointing to the need for continued monument status to protect what's on the ground.
Prepared by the Center for American Progress and Conservation Science Partners, the study released this week asserts the Bears Ears region is on par with multiple iconic national parks, including Yellowstone, Glacier, the Grand Canyon and Arches.
“The cultural significance of the area is unparalleled, and this study shows that —scientifically and environmentally speaking — Bears Ears has few peers,” said Jenny Rowland, research and advocacy manager for the Public Lands Project at the center.
“Not only is Bears Ears ecologically valuable, but it also holds its own as a national treasure even when compared with some of the nation’s most iconic national parks," she added.
The analysis used 10 ecological indicators comparing Bears Ears to like-sized areas in the West and found it placed in the top 10 percent for ecological intactness, connectivity and night sky darkness. San Juan County is Utah's least populated county, its poorest and largest in size — home to national parks and national monuments that surround much of the Bears Ears region.
"With its conservation significance among the ranks of our national parks, Bears Ears deserves to be kept in the public’s hands and protected for future generations,” Rowland said.
The report comes amid the continuing controversy over the new monument and in the same week that newly confirmed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he's reviewing the process for monument designations.
"Everything is on the board," Zinke said during a White House briefing. "We're looking at it. No monument in specific, but looking at the process, looking at the law and making sure the monuments follow the law. At the end of the day, it is important that we operate collaboratively."
Zinke, a former GOP congressman from Montana, is under pressure by both monument supporters and its critics to visit the rugged region in southeast Utah and talk with those entrenched in the debate.
In the briefing, he was asked by a reporter what action he might take on another monument — Gold Butte in Nevada — which was designated by then-President Barack Obama on the same day as Bears Ears and in the final weeks of his administration.
"If you are outside of Washington, D.C., there is a lot of anger out there," Zinke said. "And I want the Department of Interior, our rangers and land managers to be first viewed as rangers and land managers, not law enforcement. I don't want us to be heavy-handed, and I want us to work with local communities, because it is where we are embedded."
Utah's top politicians and local elected officials have railed against Bears Ears and want the monument designation rescinded by President Donald Trump or derailed in some sort of legislative action.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, reiterated the litany of complaints over the designation during a speech on the Senate floor Thursday evening.
"In the parting shot of his presidency, President Obama defied the entire Utah congressional delegation and the will of his own constituents when he declared the Bears Ears National Monument. With a stroke of a pen, he locked away an astonishing 1.35 million acres — a geographic area larger than the total acreage of all five of Utah's national parks combined," Hatch said.
The country's most senior sitting senator added that he has pressed Trump on the public lands issue during a one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office.
"Our president assured us that he stands ready to work with us to fix this disaster. More than any of his predecessors, President Trump understands what's at stake here," Hatch said.
The Center for American Progress' report on Bears Ears National Monument said the political sentiments of Utah leaders like Hatch underscores the need for continued protections.
“Efforts to get rid of protections for the area should be seen for what they are: a sellout of our national heritage to special interests," Rowland said. The report, Rowland notes, says the area's vulnerability to mining and oil and gas development is high without monument protections.
But critics of the monument and the Bureau of Land Management say otherwise, with a federal agency assessment that says the majority of the land in the Bear Ears footprint has low-to-moderate potential for oil and gas development and much of the area was already closed to leasing or had restrictions. A proposed uranium mine expansion lies outside the monument's boundaries, although BLM maps show there may be some high mining potential for uranium within the monument.
Jami Bayles, president of the Stewards of San Juan County, said the report was generated by its own special interests.
"The fact that this analysis was carried out by the Center for American Progress is quite telling," she said. "The (center) works arm in arm with the Conservation Lands Foundation, who has been a major promoter of the Bears Ears Monument. So to say that the reason people oppose the monument is because they want to drill for oil and develop the area is a fallacy. We oppose it because we don’t want to lose our little community and become the next Moab."
Bayles said the report, by comparing Bears Ears with national parks, misses its own point.
"The analysis showed that Bears Ears exceeded several national parks including Arches, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone in a variety of ecological categories. Could that be because it’s located in an area that has never had a massive, overcrowded, and overdeveloped recreation and tourist economy? We simply don't want the land to change. We’ve kept it pristine for decades, and we don’t need monument or park status to keep it that way."
Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, whose district includes the Bears Ears region, added that making the area a monument is the best way to jeopardize its landscape.
"Publicizing it like this in this report is not going to be doing it any favors," he said. "It seems backward to me. Evidently all this has happened with it being so wonderful with protections that have been around 50 to 100 years. So why do you want to make it an attraction for people to come?"
The BLM said it has been struggling with increased visitation to the region in the last couple years and the publicity surrounding Bears Ears is driving more people to visit.
"We are sensing that a lot of them are not familiar with the area," said BLM spokeswoman Lisa Bryant.
"These canyonlands are a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle and are also far away from gas stations and convenience stores," she added. "So we ask that everyone be prepared with proper clothing, water, food, maps and obtain the necessary permits before entering the backcountry."
She said that the BLM is working with partners that include the Blanding Visitor's Center and National Park Service offices to educate visitors about being safe on the public lands and exercising respect for cultural artifacts they may come across. In addition, the agency has prepared a brochure to provide additional information to would-be tourists and visitors.
The Bears Ears National Monument proposal captured the attention of Washington, D.C., after an intense campaign by a coalition of five Native American tribes that worked with environmental groups to lobby for monument protections for land they say is sacred.
The tribes sought a co-management strategy with the federal government that was recognized in Obama's monument proclamation issued last December. That management includes a tribal commission with representatives from Native American tribes from the region.