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Michael Thomas Robison
Mesa Arch, in Canyonlands National Park.

While discussing protections for Bears Ears National Monument, the question is not “should we protect this land?” but “how should we protect this land?” Leaving this question unanswered will accelerate the demise of this remarkable natural wonder, archaeological font and religious outlet. However, if the President Obama-structured leadership were corrected, and a better understanding of the use and access post-federal control were communicated, Utahns would be more receptive to federal management of the land.

Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa (a conservation group dedicated to protecting the land in San Juan County in Utah), says all the publicity has led to a dramatic increase in tourism on leaderless land.

“Never has there been a national monument that has received this level of publicity,” Ewing says. “The Bears Ears area is literally being loved to death.”

Michael Thomas Robison
Mesa Arch, in Canyonlands National Park.

Ewing's group is working to create some infrastructure to organize volunteers and support visitors, including parking, education, bathrooms, etc.

On Dec. 4, 2017, President Trump made an announcement in Salt Lake City, detailing his plan to shrink both Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The debate around Bears Ears has become the leading example for today’s discussion of public lands, pulling commentary and opinion from high-profile individuals and corporations such as REI, The North Face, and Patagonia.

To fully understand the leadership issue, it is important to look at the facts from the perspective of many residents of the Western United States: 93 percent of all U.S. public lands is housed within the 13 Western states. Almost two-thirds (66.5 percent) of lands in Utah is owned by the federal government, and only one other state has more federally owned land: Nevada at 81 percent.

“Never has there been a national monument that has received this level of publicity. ... The Bears Ears area is literally being loved to death.”
Josh Ewing

When President Clinton announced in 1996 plans to seize more of Utah for federal interests, creating Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, people were upset. Adding insult to injury, Clinton made the announcement without even setting foot in Utah. These slights, regardless of actual or perceived intent, caused many residents to become resolute in stopping anything that looks like a federal land grab and favor transference of land back to the state.

However, there is a growing subset of the Utah population looking past the angst of federal involvement and pragmatically looking at the economics of protecting the land. As Deseret News Opinion Editor Boyd Matheson wrote in a recent article, they are engaging in the "crucial conversations," and challenging long-held tenets to discover new solutions to frustrations.

Greg Lemon
View of a Utah landscape. Until we resolve management issues, there are questions associated with tourism, a result of public contention and publicity, that need answers.

As a local to Utah, one of the of the biggest contentions I have heard is that the state can manage the land “better than the feds.” Our fiscally responsible leaders do a great job managing their budget, so it stands to reason they could do the same for state land.

While I have the utmost confidence and trust in our wonderful people, one only need look at the most basic economics to get a sense of the fallacy of this argument. Look at the respective population bases that can be taxed to support the management of the land. If Utah was to manage the land, it would need to tax the 3.1 million residents of the state. If the financial burden was placed on a federal level, that cost can be spread over 325 million citizens.

Of the federal government's ability to manage the land, Gov. Gary Herbert pointed out that budgets are being cut at the national level, but he does not address the core issue. The federal government can, and always will, be able to raise far more funds to protect the land than the state. However, it would be great to see Utah's leaders provide an actual execution plan on how they would preserve and protect the land better than the federal government with fewer financial resources.

An example of this new school of thought comes from Randy Newberg. An avid Montana hunter who has built his second career instructing others how to engage on successful hunting trips on public lands in the West, Newberg has started advocating for greater protection of land and actively works to block or stop the transfer of public lands to state land boards.

Marcus Jardine
View of a Utah landscape. Until we resolve management issues, there are questions associated with tourism, a result of public contention and publicity, that need answers.

Newberg says Utah leadership has sold “more than a third” of the state-owned land. An accountant, Newberg uses this foundation to contrast the difficulties of a state funding a monument with the capital resources available to the federal government. The result, Newberg contends, is that states are forced to fundraise to support these lands. More often than not, the fundraising comes in the form of leasing public land.

He writes, “... Many of these state land boards restrict, or prohibit, activities we outdoors people engage in for free on federal lands. Let’s use Colorado as an example. You cannot hunt, fish, shoot, hike, camp, or in any other way use State Trust Land, unless you are the holder of the land lease. Imagine then, taking the 23 million acres of BLM and Forest Service lands in Colorado and handing them over to the Colorado State Land Board. In that one stroke of a pen, Americans would lose hunting, fishing, shooting, camping, hiking, (insert recreation activity here) rights on 23 million acres, whereas they currently enjoy those activities, mostly without restriction, in Colorado.”

Serendipity or not, you be the judge: The Huffington Postreported that one parcel of land released in the shrinking of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument sits adjacent to 40 acres owned by Utah State Rep. Mike Noel. After the reduction of the monument, Rep. Noel submitted a bill to rename a state highway, supposedly in honor of President Trump shrinking the monument boundaries. The legislator later pulled back the bill from consideration.

With this information as context, I maintain that with a management fix, there is a way to encourage Utahn's to support the creation of public land in Utah. Involve the local constituants in the management plan for Bears Ears: The original plan called for joint management between the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management — no problem here as both agencies have a good track record of joint management. But in order to facilitate the processing of public input, it was proposed that a Bears Ears commission be created.

According to the Forest Service, this commission would “be comprised of one elected officer from each of the five tribes that formed the Inter-Tribal Coalition. … five members of that council would be appointed by five tribes.” The leadership problem is magnified by the fact that three of the tribes are not officially residentin Utah but have ancestral connections to land within the state.

Michael Thomas Robison
Mesa Arch, in Canyonlands National Park

Opponents cite the National Bison Range as a case study for the failure of tribal management of public lands. It is still working its way through the legal system, but accusations include fraud, abuse and public exclusion abound, all of which defeat the purpose of what most people desire in their public lands.

Addressing this issue, in addition to shrinking the Bears Ears monument, Trump added a sixth seat to the commission — a representative of Utah’s constituents. The addition is being viewed by the Inter-Tribal Coalition as a slight to local tribes, who are suing to remove the state representative from the commission. This legal move furthers the public sentiment that land access is being removed from the local and national constituents that are funding the land.

4 comments on this story

If we let things continue on its current course, it could take more than five years for all the legal wrangling to work out. In that time, significant damage, on account of its newfound popularity, could be inflicted on the land. But, we have a chance to expedite the protection of this land and provide a voice for all of the major audiences interested in its conservation. This will require each group to make some concessions, but in turn we will all be able to continue to protect and use the land for generations to come.

Until we resolve management issues, there are questions associated with tourism, a result of public contention and publicity, that need answers. Most pressing matters are logistical: Where are visitors going to park? Or what restrooms will these visitors use? Ewing and the Friends of Cedar Mesa are stepping up to lead and solve immediate needs. Will we join them?