Clipping Bears Ears

9.  What was once a monument–and will still be in the eyes of many–has been temporary massively downsized and circumscribed, as if to minimize whatever Trump’s now-forgotten predecessor had hoped to remain untouched by his successor, and had every right to expect being accorded that respect.  But the relishing that Trump showed in the recent proclamation to opening the lands goes beyond vendetta, and approaches a model of auctioning off of public lands and resources on them.  For the decree opens an assault on the idea of the commons, which animate public lands, as much as a waging of wars of Barack Obama’s legacy, no matter how much that may sweeten the pie, for it threatens to launch a redesigning of open public lands.  For in ways that seek to conclude the land wars which have spun out in southeastern Utah, by devising altogether new maps that seem a blueprint aimed to set a prominent example for how public lands are now open to vulnerability than to address local interests.

In fact, the entire scheme seems a model for letting folks know who is boss–they have decidedly tabled concerns raised in the local Public Land Initiative, and adopted the pro-business Washington strategy of telling local populations what they really want, or what sort of economic development they want to expose formerly protected lands, and what sense of the commons Washington wants to dismantle.  Donald Trump doesn’t seem to have much of a coordinated plan for winning a protracted legal fight in court here, but the case sadly seems more, in Trump’s style to be a slam dunk, whose unsubtle GPS scalpels have helped fragment into the actually monumental public lands with little sense of a historical record, serving interests that are in fact far removed from any local needs or demands.  Sadly, it seems doubtful he even needs a long-term strategy to prepare for expanding practices of once unthinkable oil- and gas-leasing by selling off once-protected acreage, and developing the leasing and sales of public lands to extractive industries–a big give-away of a Christmas present to extractive industires, who can operate without much or any public oversight in the legal setting the Trump administration has orchestrate over time with what seems a frightening degree of foresight for an administration that so often turns on a dime.

The strategy is particularly dangerous as it seems to set sites on making more open lands in the west–at the same time as they are historically shrinking–vulnerable by what seems federal sale to the highest bidder or the closest friends, and opens the way for the lease sale of public resources, championing local interests and rights that don’t necessarily exist–and certain aren’t legible in the way that Trump and Secretary Zinke stand to map the reduction of public lands in the individual case of Bears Ears–in order to mask a vast giveaway of resources to dirty energy companies under the name of streamlining federal land policies, eroding public protections by undoing rules without any process of public review, starting from the repeal this past August of the Official Natural Resources Revenue rule enacted by the Obama administration that was designed to increase the amount of revenues from any drilling, mining, or extracting of fuels on public lands.  Whereas the Royalties rule would split such dividends between states and the feds, preventing companies from selling raw goods to shell companies that could be sold for export tax free, by affiliates or subsidiaries.

10.  In rewriting federal land regulations, Trump has privileged the opening of formerly protected lands to leasing in ways that parallels the moves by Trump’s EPA to redefine national waters, dismantle regulations on mining and drilling for oil, and indeed for opening public lands to speculation by extractive industries without any recognition of the dangers methane emissions and carbon pollution pose to global warming or man-made climate change.  By reducing government revenues and expanding profits for extractive industries and waving rules to limit methane emissions from oil and gas wells, drilling on public lands can now be far more profitable, after the Trump’s executive orders lifted of any consideration of the social cost of carbon that would take into account whether coal mines and surface mining would generate “costs” by greenhouse gas emissions.  The undoing of these federal regulations was rarely accompanied by concrete illustrations, but are now made more evident in the opening of Bears Ears and the Escalante.  They respond to the lifting of a three-year moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands while they are reviewed, which long hampered extractive industires, which produces about 40 percent of the coal used to generate electricity, which Zinke’s cancelled, and a broader review of the Clean Power Plan.  Indeed, the local of Bears Ears might be best seen in relation to the global, and to the expansion of extractive energy plans that will work to emit more carbon, and release more methane, than recently issued federal regulations have been primarily deigned to curb.

The role of mapping in the parceling of public lands in both Bears Ears and the Escalante is reveled in the leaked draft maps of the new plans for dismembering the continuity and the value of the National Monument.  By dividing what was recently a coherent national monuments into two rumps, the amount of resource-rich lands which were exposed to leasing dramatically grew, in a project that must have been planned remotely in Washington, D.C. within the Secretary of the Interior, using satellite images of the area rather than actually visiting its site–or using GPS-derived imagery in a UTM projection in the most sleazy and misleading of ways.  The leaked plans may start to help us understand what Trump thinks he’s doing by for the first time removing federal lands from being national monuments.  When we see the scale of the leaked images for what will be lost in Bears Ears by the radical shrinkage of its boundaries to two small islands–

Bears Ears Modification

Bears LegendPlans for Boundary Modification of the former Bears Ears National Monument (Leaked)

–or the contracted Grand Staircase-Escalante, designated as national monument by President Bill Clinton now proposed to be reduced by about half, shrinking its expanse to a diminished “core” by a logic similarly opaque as a strategy of land management.
Grand Staircase-Escalante Modifiction
The cutting of both monuments to an even greater degree than had been announced or intimated suggests a rewriting of federal authority as a dispenser of rights to public lands, in a sort of imagined Droit du seigneur, misreading the legal constitution of Presidential authority as lying in the issuing of executive orders, suggesting that the President is somehow the utmost real estate magnate in the nation, and able to have his administration act like one, if not as a feudal lord:  the assumption is that the President is able to act outside of legal authority–similarly to the suggestion that a President is incapable of obstructing justice, because he embodies it, and whatever his word stands as or wherever his signature is amended, executive privilege shapes the law of the land.
The terrifying scale of the reductions of public lands that were mapped quite carefully in these leaked maps from the Trump administration suggest the unprecedented scale of landscape modification at stake, and make one think of the scale of the loss ofonce open lands across the west over the previous fifteen or more years.  The maps show the extent to which huge expanses were removed from Bears Ears under the rhetoric of “liberation,” but concealing what real interests were at work in their redefinition.
The suggestion of such a liberation from constraining regulations indeed suggests how much the remapping provided a basis for reducing the monument in ways that stand to reduce and irreparably diminish its monumental status.
11.  Contemplating the scale of such a change in a former commons is where we must begin.  For the deeply ethical question of continuing to fragment public lands of such importance raises deep ethical questions that are handily obscured by the GPS scalpel used in UTM projections of the former national monuments.  The expansive context of the intensive modification of western lands pose part of the problem, and they might suggests the category confusion that has occurred between the administration of a public good and projects of historic preservation and the extreme fluidity of the real estate market.  It is tempting to compare the encroachment on open space, if not public lands, in comparison to the downsizing of National Monuments that we may yet see, as the leasing and losing of public lands is in danger of displacing the project of preservation.  One cannot but think of the unprecedented contraction of the two national monuments by analogy to the loss of open space across so much of the American West–even as that space has rapidly disappeared.  The sudden contraction of open spaces is striking even if one limits oneself to the decade 2001-11–but registering landscape modification by the astounding pace of extra-urban growth, before much of the spread extractive industries.
open land lost in West

Disappearing West, Loss of Open Lands through 2011

PErcent Modified

The booming real estate market has rewritten the landscape, although the absence of the modification of open lands stands out in southeastern Utah.  This reflects the presence of the monument and success of long-term preservation of sensitive areas for development–but reveals the increased interest of extractive industries to gain access to them as well, and prepares for the potential of the future modification of Nevada’s Gold Butte, which seems next on Zinke’s laundry list for the conversion of federally administered public lands to private industry, in a misguided attempt to reward extractive industries in the belief of the benefits of jump starting the domestic energy industry.

Disappearing W

Loss of Open Land in the United States West, detail focussing on Nevada and Utah

PErcent Modified

Rather than modification by housing, the opening of the public lands of a former national monument to private interests is designed primarily for mining and drilling.

What gives with the bizarre restriction of the Bears Ears region is in danger of being a dramatically shrunken national monument?  Energy needs is a large part.  Even if there were thirty-three others that Obama named, this one is special, and not only for the wealth of energy in the ground, but the precedent it sets in revising the protection of federal lands.  This is in part because Bears Ears was of course covered under the Antiquities Act, and because it suggests a relation to the past that doesn’t seem to have ever been particularly prized by a President fond of invoking a Disney-fied Pocahontas before Navajo elders.  Even if Donald Trump’s official modification did not strip the region of monumental status, the isolated hatched regions seem cut out of the existing boundaries, including the Valley of Gods, which while it remains an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, may soon find itself open to a number of extractive technologies without any regulations, if Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has his way with ending that land-use designation.  For Zinke has long hoped to open federal lands for mining–and may be the one at work in so dramatically redrawing the protection of federal lands.  The decision leaves many of the areas that are under consideration as future Areas of Critical Environmental Concern in a status that is also unprotected, or in other words open for prospecting.  While Congress would need to vote on including or not including such potential Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, shouldn’t Congress to consider who benefits from opening up these lands for mining and rather than for protection as part of a cultural legacy or a practice of remembering, deemed worthy of protection among existing federal lands–it is a double diminishing, in other words, of the notion of a cultural legacy, and of the importance of remembering.

Transverse Mercator BEars Ears.png

The proclamation, while perhaps not legal, seems the opening salvo of Trump’s processing of Zinke’s broader recommendation to trim four entire national monuments on Western lands in order to open them up to actions of ecological destruction and shrinkage of open space–by encouraging permits of logging and mining to future development, which is bound to be a major give away, and bring quite a few eager for expanding coal mining an easy buck.  Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante, are two of the four sites that also include Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskayou, the former 300,000 acres of desert lands with considerable rock art and sandstone towers and the latter 113,000 acres along the convergence of three mountain ranges, but the Bears’ Ears takes a bee out of The Donald’s bonnet; he was long critical of what he, the quasi-elected arbiter of legality, speaking now as a real estate man, characterized as a “massive federal land grab” that “we’re going to free up”–and in choosing the Bears Ears went for the biggest prize first, and no doubt the most satisfactory as an opportunity to characterize his predecessor’s venality in being in thrall to interests that departed from the local ones he championed.  No big fan of natural beauty, anyway, Trump’s eagerness to engineer a huge review of public land preservation in the United States–as allegedly “harming” bucolic American activities that Zinke characterized as “traditional” –“traditional uses of the land such as grazing, timber production, mining, fishing, hunting, recreation and other cultural uses are unnecessarily restricted“–to prevent elitist impulses from harming local economies.

But is not the remapping of the integrity of the National Monument a way of exposing them to the interests of extractive industries that stand to compromise not only the lands, but their access to local residents?  The proposal raises deep questions of the ethics of stewardship that Trump seems decided to eradicate or erase, as well as the historical relation of local communities to the land.  Indeed, the extent of modification of the boundaries of the National Monument seem to reveal even more egregious instances of venality.  The argument that this is really about energy resources openly recalls Ronald Reagan’s notorious insistence that we should continue to burn petroleum in cars without ride-sharing, gasoline taxes, or constraining energy habits, as environmental protections of big government have been what has prevented us from drilling for large deposits of offshore oil and gas that are only waiting to be tapped to allow us to indulge our need for petroleum.  We’re perhaps not there, yet, but the logic is identical.  The claims that the Antiquities Act was used to hinder “energy development” and belonging to a “war on coal” that would be able to stimulate local economies conceals the huge give aways that opening three million acres in Utah to prospecting plays well to a red state, and give a prize to Orrin Hatch–chair of the Senate Finance Committee–and Senator Mike Lee for having helped force through a tax bill that they should not have consented to provide huge tax cuts to corporations, and undermining programs from public education to health insurance to Medicare, and even publicly bemoaning after the fact that no funds exist to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, affirming his reluctance to dismantle the program, even if it is designed to “help people [who] don’t help themselves.”

The new affirmations from Hatch suggest something like a sharp change of mind, but adopts the similar Reagan-esque rhetoric once again in fashion among Trump’s White House team.  “I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves – won’t lift a finger – and expect the federal government to do everything,” Hatch reasoned, after having voted to approve the new Tax Bill to give a real tax break to the owners of private jet planes, even though he had once helped to frame it, with the late Edward Kennedy, who was proud to have convinced him to support it, and which Hillary Clinton also supported as Senator–and has since championed.  Is the destruction of the program a knife into Hillary Clinton, or will the sale of public lands help to provide funds for it?  At any rate, the “moral responsibility to help children” he once vaunted proudly seems to have disappeared; opening lands for mining, logging, and grazing is the outdated order of the day.

For the proud declaration of definitively shrinking a monument that was the size of the state of Delaware–13 million acres–into something the size of Dallas is less the triumph of local interests that Trump seems to have celebrated–but  brazen remapping of the landscape of protected lands to a vestige of the region that recently protected, and whose protection was just theatrically rolled back.  One might not look for that cunning a strategy in all this, but a classical case of governmental over-reach–in the name of protecting local interests, and rehearsing an increasingly tired opposition between rural America and coastal elites that Trump seems particularly interested in replaying as he visits the regions of America he seems most likely to recognize as trophies on his prized electoral map more than places, and has, of course, spent little or no time.


Leaflet | qgis2web, © OpenStreetMap contributors,CC-BY-SA

12.  Creating two vestigial rumps as mini-monuments arrogated a huge amount of authority to the current executive, and seems to undermine the inherited responsibility to protect federal lands, by treating them as a sort of fief or personal possession of the occupant of the office of President, rather than as having been legally defined as monuments of collective interest:  Trump was never known for much interest in monuments that were not dedicated to his own name, to be sure, but his attempts to dispose of public properties that as President he is steward of, rather than owner of a negotiable title, treating the evacuation of the investing of land with the status of a national monument with a rather frightening degree of fungibility

Bears Ears.png

The signing celebration in the halls of Salt Lake City, bizarrely staged under a painting of Western exploration–Lewis & Clark with a passive Sacagawea?  While that seems right to marginalize the claims of the native tribes, the lunette actually shows Mormons’ covered carriage as they arrived in the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847, in an image of manifest destiny.  The theme of the painting fits the announcement of demonumentalization, removed from the real site of the park even as protestors outside the Capitol Building beseeched the President to visit the areas he had just demoted as protected public lands.  Below the image of the 1847 arrival of Mormons in the Great Salt Lake Valley, “The Passing of the Wagons,” which faces an image of the desert turned fertile by irrigation, Trump seemed to proclaim the land now open for drilling and leasing, as if an auctioneer asking for the highest bid, but invoking that the sale as Manifest Destiny.  For in evoking the hoary myth of Manifest Destiny and the interests it concealed, the Executive Order opens lands to public prospecting, mining and speculation presumes a self-serving ideal of unfettered ownership of lands, erasing their relation to native inhabitants and to their historical occupation.

Salt lake City Announcmenet

The image of the opening of lands stands in odd contrast to the massive contraction of the monument, if it stages a similar conceit of the destined opening of public lands to the settlers of the Great Salt Lake.  Yet, rather than offer lands to new settlers, as the mythic story goes, Trump seems to be inviting the wagons of industry into not only southeastern Utah, declaring the opening of vast expanses of once public lands to private interests, with only the promise of trickle-down benefits to states.


Indeed, the territorial break-up Trump has decreed by GPS magic follows no logic other than opening up resources beneath the ground, destined to disrupt the coherence of the lands themselves.  The proposal offers a dangerous emblem of the dismantling of a logic of protection, conservation, or protecting natural resources.  For more than any other president, Trump channeled Ronald Reagan’s disturbing legacy of dismantling the role of representative government, when he taunted on national television that “Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by very distant bureaucrats located in Washington.”   As Reagan, Trump seems to be using the power of a sound bit to push under the rug that local indigenous groups had long pushed hard and strong for the region’s preservation, and that it has been long been sacred to the Navajo, Ute, Ute Mountain, and Zuni, who turned to President Obama after finding that they had no truck with local lawmakers who were elected to represent them.  As Reagan, his failure to appreciate the ecological integrity of lands and the dangers of environmental risks to the nation’s security seems to invite the upsetting of a fragile if longstanding ecological balance  The radical reduction appears a trial balloon for the assertion of Washington to give away once-protected lands, as part of a great real estate sell-off, perhaps to try to address the exploding debt, but perhaps more to keep Hatch as an ally in the Senate, securing the commitment from the 83 year old seven-term Utah senator to be bolstered in the state and to exclude the hopes of an increasingly marginalized Mitt Romney who once hoped to contest his seat, cementing the new status in which Trump, who works everything based on personalities and alliances, rather than issues or ideology, to keep a strong ally to pursue his project of selling off of public lands in hopes to Make American Great Again–and to show Romney the back door, again, and let him know who is running the country, or claims to be, by denying the very concept of a public interest.


Nov. 19, 2016. | Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Trump’s predesignation of the monuments seems a desperate power play, and a distraction from ongoing investigations of his immersion in schemes of financial corruption.  They are also something of a Christmas present to benefactors, an item to be ticked off that was promised to the special interests not only of lobbyists but within the Republican party.  Such rewriting the process of monument preservation and federal lands protection pose deep challenges to the preservation of lands.  Hopi, Navajo, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni Tribal Governments are working together to defend Bears Ears National Monument.  

You can #StandWithBearsEars at


Filed under American West, Bears Ears, environmental preservation, federal land protection, national monuments

2 responses to “Clipping Bears Ears

  1. Cheryl Koehler

    Daniel, you should send this to the New York Times Opinion editors.

    Cheryl Koehler / Edible East Bay

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