Living in Columbia, Missouri, it is, as they say, a “fur piece” from Columbia to Blanding and Monticello, Utah. Several times, however, I have made that trip with my wife, son, brother-in-law and friends – not all at once, as that would result in a very crowded car. We have camped many times on the high plateau just a mile or so from the famous “Bears Ears,” rocky outcroppings that, from a distance, resemble the ears of a bear. Those friends, one of whom is from here and the other from Florida, are now married and reside in Moab.
While the area has been portrayed as a barren wasteland, in my experience that is simply not true. Trekking and camping in Dark Canyon, part of the Obama-designated Bears Ears National Monument, I found it to be a wonderland. While there’s not much in the way of vegetation, that lack is more than made up by the rock formations. Dark Canyon is also home to a number of wild critters: ravens, porcupines, bobcats and other critters.
There is also considerable economic benefit to the aforementioned Blanding and Monticello. Bluff also benefits, as my relatives, friends and I have stayed in motels in those towns, eaten in local cafes, and purchased backpacking and camping items at local retail outlets. San Juan County doesn’t totally depend upon tourist dollars, but several places do.
After some lobbying and pleas from several Indian tribes, then-President Barrack Obama, under the authority granted to him by the federal Antiquities Act, named the 1.35-million-acre area (the tribes had asked for 1.9 million) a national monument. The area he designated as a national monument was public land and managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Not so fast, President Donald J. Trump proclaimed, and he sent the then-Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior Ryan Zinke to determine if the area should remain as a national monument or if a large portion should be removed from that designation.
Zinke dutifully visited the area and did indeed recommend removal of a large portion – about 85 percent of the area – from national monument status, opening the area to mineral (coal), oil and gas exploration. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (designated by then-President Bill Clinton) was also reduced by a bit more than one-half, but I have only visited that area one time and do not know it very well. None of this exploration can be conducted in a national monument. Zinke has since resigned, apparently as a result of various investigations into his ethics or lack of same.
Even though Zinke recommended removing a substantial chunk from national monument status – a recommendation approved by President Trump – still about one-third of the Bears Ears area is under Wilderness or Wilderness study status and therefore off limits to all commercial activity. Short version: Zinke’s resignation, while applauded by the Indian tribes and my friends in Moab, means nothing as far as the removal goes. He acted as the Secretary of the Interior, not as Ryan Zinke.
But, in spite of all that, it was the Indian tribes’ turn to say “not so fast” and file a lawsuit in the federal court of Washington, D.C., claiming that, in essence, the President can declare an area a national monument, but has no authority to remove that status (a federal judge recently ruled against the Trump administration, which wanted the suit moved to Salt Lake City). Their motive, as it was in pleas to Obama, is to protect and preserve what they view as a sacred area, and they do not wish to see it desecrated by oil, coal, and natural gas companies’ explorations.
The tribes in the lawsuit are the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Piute and two Ute tribes joined by various other conservation groups, such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Association. Their legal effort is endorsed and supported by 30 other Indian tribes and by many other environmental organizations. While backpackers and campers may not deem the area to be sacred, neither do they wish to see drilling rigs or mining tipples in this area.
But, to the tribe’s dismay, the courts don’t act quickly. Trump’s legal team responded to the tribe’s lawsuit and the tribes have responded to that response. The tribes hope for a ruling in their favor; the oil, gas, and mining companies hope for Zinke’s recommendation to withstand legal scrutiny. In the meantime, some of the area’s protected status remains, but pending a ruling by the court of jurisdiction, all is up in the air.
Ken Midkiff is a columnist for the Columbia Missourian and Joplin Globe. He is chair of the City of Columbia’s Environment and Energy Commission. He is a member of board of directors of Great Rivers Environmental Law Center. He is the former director of Sierra Club Clean Water Campaign. He is allegedly retired.