Next month President Donald Trump is expected to visit Utah and announce that he will shrink the boundaries of our beloved Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. I urge the administration to reconsider.
Our public lands, especially our national monuments, do not just make up the physical landscape of our country. They are vital pillars of our culture and the backdrop to our history — some of which we are still uncovering — especially the sites and stories that have been discounted in the past because of their great significance to underrepresented communities, like Latinos. Many of the most recent national monument designations, including Bears Ears, have been created to safeguard sites that are more inclusive and representative of our nation’s diverse history.
Bears Ears is a sacred landscape with more than 100,000 Native American cultural sites. The proposal to establish it was developed by a coalition of five sovereign tribal governments (Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute and Zuni). Bears Ears is also home to scientific wonders, irreplaceable wildlife, biodiversity and recreational opportunities that form a vital base to our local economy.
The Bears Ears designation created by the previous administration received an enormous amount of careful consideration, including years of stakeholder feedback. The final monument boundaries are very close to what Utah’s delegation proposed with their own Public Lands Initiative, and it is even much smaller than the original tribally led proposal.
And how can we even justify opening up the 200 million-year-old Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to mining and energy development, as Trump has indicated he wants to do? This is simply not necessary. Oil and gas companies already sit on over 19 million acres of unused public land leases, while over 7,500 approved drilling permits on U.S. public lands are undrilled and idled. What’s more, 22 million acres of public lands offered at auction went unsold to oil companies in just the last seven years.
Outdoor recreation and energy development need not be in direct conflict. We should value all of our resources. It is especially concerning that our pristine monuments that are currently open for hunting, fishing and hiking are now at risk of being closed or overrun by strip mines and oil fields. Preventing highly impactful activities in designated areas for the purpose of conserving these special places is not “locking up” the land, rather it is managing it for the greater good, including for the benefit of both current and future generations.
Communities across Utah recognize that outdoor recreation supports health, contributes to a high quality of life and — perhaps most importantly — attracts and sustains employers and families. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, Utah’s outdoor recreation economy is worth $12.3 billion, including 110,000 jobs — more than double the amount of mining and energy jobs in our state combined.
Most voters in Utah support leaving these monuments alone. But while local input is important, at the end of the day, these are federal lands that belong to all of us. They are part of our nation’s treasures and preserve the rich history of the entire United States.
From a legal perspective, President Trump does not have the right to reduce the size of these national treasures. Although U.S. presidents can declare monuments under the Antiquities Act (which eight Republican and eight Democratic presidents have done), they lack the authority to eliminate or significantly alter a national park or monument — only Congress can take such an action.
Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments are sacred and should be preserved. If we reduce the boundaries of these monuments, they could be ruined and lost forever. We hold dear the lands that we depend on for recreation, sustenance and the growing tourism economy. For Latinos and Native Americans, these sites are a way for us to understand the rich history of those who came before us. These and other public lands tell our story, the story of all Americans — and speak volumes about what we value.
Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a Democratic member of the Utah state House of Representatives, is a board member of Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors (HECHO).