On May 11, at the end of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s four-day listening tour of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, the Interior Department released a request for public comment on the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments in Utah as well as 26 other monuments created between 1996 and 2016.
The Department of the Interior will accept public comments on the designation of Bears Ears National Monument until Friday, May 26. Comments on Grand Staircase-Escalante, Gold Butte in Nevada, Canyon of the Ancients in Colorado and other monuments will be accepted for 60 days, until July 10.
The review is aimed at determining the appropriateness of the designations under the Antiquities Act. A May 10 Interior Department press release states that Zinke will consider the requirements and objectives of the Antiquities Act, including the requirement that monuments not exceed “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected,” whether monuments have been appropriately classified as “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, [or] other objects of historic or scientific interest,” the availability of federal funds to properly manage designated areas and other factors.
“A public comment period is not required for monument designations under the Antiquities Act,” the news release states. “However, Secretary Zinke and President Trump both strongly believe that local input is a critical component of federal land management.”
While some national and local environmental and recreation groups have organized in support of the monument, Janet Wilcox, an organizer with the San Juan County Stewards, said her group has been focused on trying to get the monument rescinded since former President Barack Obama designated it last December.
“We still think 1.3 million acres is way, way too much,” she said, adding that Bears Ears is an example of federal “overreach.”
Wilcox and others are concerned about access to wood collection, which many local residents use to heat their homes through the winter, negative impacts of increased tourism and doubts about the federal government’s ability to effectively protect the area as a monument, she said.
Wilcox added that tourism industry jobs are not necessarily desirable.
“If people have to have two or three tourist-related jobs to have one good salary, it’s not really helping with a stable kinds of jobs like a professional nurse or a teacher,” Wilcox said. “Even a rancher has a better, stable income.”
Wilcox said she and other members of the San Juan Stewards have been asking people to write letters in opposition to the monument during the public comment period, but are concerned that environmental groups will have more funding and power to organize supporters of the monument.
Jason Keith, co-founder of the Moab-based climbing advocacy group Friends of Indian Creek and senior policy advisor for the Access Fund, another climbing advocacy organization, met with the officials at Zinke’s office in Washington, D.C. to ask what the department is looking to learn from the public comment period.
“They just want to know that there was appropriate outreach by the Department of Interior to local stakeholders and the public,” said Keith. “They want feedback on how this monument and the other monuments that they’re reviewing fit the requirements of the Antiquities Act.”
During that meeting, Keith asked Zinke’s staff to extend the 15-day comment period for Bears Ears to allow more public input.
“We really urged them ... to extend it and they said no,” said Keith. “Hopefully [the outcome] is not predetermined.”
Keith said years of outreach and public discussion occurred before the monument was designated and that the designation under the Antiquities Act is appropriate.
“It’s the first monument in the country that actually acknowledges rock climbing as a valuable use of the area, so that is significant as well. But obviously, the ... historic and scientific objects as required in the Antiquities Act ... are the primary reasons for the designation.”
Keith said that it is standard for public comments to be categorized and made available to the citizens, and that any administrative actions are based on those comments.
“If they get form letters, they’re going to treat them the same. The best comment is a unique communication from an individual addressing the specific things outlined in the review notice,” Keith said. “The review is about whether the process of creating the monument was appropriate and done correctly, that is the outreach. It’s been characterized as a midnight rule at the last second that nobody knew about and that’s just not accurate.”
Among Native American-led groups, the Utah Diné Bikéyah and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which includes the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni Tribal Nations, support the monument, while the Blue Mountain Diné has opposed the monument.
“We’ve been told that one way or another, something will change on Bears Ears,” the Blue Mountain Diné stated on their website. “If things do have to change, we prefer local input and non-tribal control, by way of a National Conservation Area.”
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition called the federal review of national monuments created by the executive order “a thinly veiled attack [on] the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.”
Comments on the validity of the specific national monument designations can be submitted online at: regulations.gov by searching “DOI-2017-0002.” Comments on Bears Ears will be accepted until May 26. Comments on all other monuments will be accepted until July 10.
Comments can also be mailed to: Monument Review, MS-1530, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20240.