I was born in Salt Lake City and returned to the valley in 2010 to attend the University of Utah. The city itself is largely liberal, dominated by skiers, mountain bikers, and people who love the outdoors. Like any other state, Utah has its problems – especially when it comes to the environment. For example, instead of the notoriously polluted air, Governor Gary Herbert declared pornography to be the public health crisis of 2016. The Salt Lake Valley air quality is unbreathable, almost doubling the national safety standard. But, just like any other state, Utah has some pretty great things, too. Chief among them is the devastatingly beautiful landscape. 

I had the great fortune of visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument last summer. The landscape is a desert garden. Twisting juniper plants live alongside grey-green sages. The small cactuses and sego lilies are reminiscent of Pacific tide pools. Underneath the brush is rare and fragile cryptobiotic soil. This soil supports the surrounding flora by holding the landscape in place and fixing nitrogen. During the day, lizards sun themselves on the sandpapery red rock. The western bird watching is some of the best. Thanks to hard work from conservationists, California Condors are now sighted as far as Bryce Canyon National Park and near the Vermillion Cliffs of Grand Staircase-Escalante. Other wildlife, from kangaroo rats to bighorn sheep, call the monument their home. The status of National Monument protects the landscape and resources so that life can flourish.

Said status of Grand Staircase-Escalante and the 26 other National Monuments are under review by the Trump Administration. And on December 4th, 2017, Trump took away what was not his to take: 1.9 million acres of public land in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. These two parks, located in southern Utah, were cut on United States Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s recommendation. 

President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks in the Utah State Capitol, December 4th, 2017. Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks.

Whose Monuments Matter?

Surprising no one, the Trump Administration’s declaration protects the special interests of the few: oil, coal, and uranium companies. By taking the land out of federal hands for public use, Trump effectively opens the territory to mining and drilling. This, however, goes against the wishes of millions of surveyed Americans and threatens to disrupt Native people’s use of their ancestral land. So while the 45th president was saddened by the loss of Confederate monuments in the Southern United States, monuments protecting sacred Indigenous lands and ecosystems were deemed unnecessary.

Trump already secured his legacy of anti-environmentalism when he pulled out of the Paris Accords in June and when he appointed Scott Pruitt administrator of the EPA. Meanwhile, Pruitt, who has sued the EPA 14 times, is uniformly against federal regulations limiting industrial development in favor of environmental protection. What’s more, Trump has solidified the prejudiced political agenda he has had since the presidential campaign. Carving up Bears Ears directly targets five Indigenous tribes and threatens their culture and well-being. Trump’s act is both racially and anti-environmentally motivated.

No Art in the Deal: Trump Versus The Arts

And yet, the political context of Utah (namely the history of displacing Native people and the state’s disdain for federal land use) is equally significant. The State pushed against Bears Ears since Obama was considering the monument. Trump’s cut to the national monuments followed years of environmental turmoil in Utah. Turmoil rooted in privileging oil, coal, and uranium interests over Indigenous people’s rights. Moreover, Utah’s conservative political majority concluded that the federal government was overstepping the state’s rights. Ironically, the Republican president actually overstepped the rights of the executive branch citing Obama’s so-called “land-grab as a (bogus) reason to shrink the monuments. 

Bears Ears National Monument
Bears Ears National Monument. Image courtesy of Bob Wick, BLM.

Utah: Life Elevated?

Utah is home to 5 out of 59 National Parks and 8 of the 129 National Monuments. All told, nearly two-thirds of Utah is federally-owned. The public lands significantly impact the state’s economy. For years, the Outdoor Retailer show brought $45 million to Salt Lake City alone largely because of Utah’s great outdoors. In addition, many credit Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for reinvigorating the economies of neighboring towns. More importantly, the public land is filled with unique ecological, paleontological, geological, and archaeological resources.

Metate Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Metate Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Image courtesy of John Fowler from Placitas, NM, USA.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, established in 1996, and Bears Ears National Monument, established in 2016, are the newest Utah monuments. Sadly, since the moments leading up to President Obama’s designation of Bears Ears, the Utah government has fought to reduce it. Gov. Herbert has been against the monument from early on, claiming that the monument is not an appropriate use of the land. The Outdoor Retail show was aghast at Gov. Herbert’s disregard for the monuments. Because of Gov. Herbert’s stance on the monuments, backed by Senator Orrin Hatch, Utah lost it’s hosting privileges to the Outdoor Retail show.

Executive (Abuse of) Power:

And now, thanks to Trump, Sen. Hatch, and Secretary Ryan Zinke, Utah has lost 85% of Bears Ears and nearly half of Grand Staircase Escalante along with it. While still under the management of the Interior (i.e. federally-owned), the land can be used by the government for energy development. The territory is no longer directly available to the public despite thousands of people in Utah alone against the cuts. 

Zinke even initiated a review, resulting in the vast majority of 2.4 million comments made supported keeping the monument’s borders without changes. Zinke’s approach to his role in protecting the environment is dubious. In the past, he has claimed to be against the transfer of public lands, suggesting that the federal government maintain control of the territory. However, he is unopposed to using the public land for drilling and mining (effectively placing the land in private hands). Across the board, Zinke has ignored the people — especially Indigenous people –when it came to decisions about public lands. 

December 4, 2017 Protest in Salt Lake City, Utah to support National Monuments. Image courtesy of KristineL761.

North Dakota Pipeline and Standing Rock: It’s Not Just Water

The Scope of the Antiquities Act

Zinke and Trump’s story is that the land designated by Clinton and Obama under the Antiquities Act was unnecessarily large. However, companies such as Patagonia have condemned the decision to cut the monuments as theft. This is due to the fact that the Antiquities Act leaves no room to take back a designation. Made law in 1906 thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt, the act gives the president authority to establish a national monument on “the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” These “objects” (or “antiquities”) refer to archaeological resources: artifacts from Native American cultures. According to archaeologist R.E. Burrillo in his piece“The Archaeology of Bears Ears,” there are roughly 9,000 recorded archaeological sites in Bears Ears National Monument. President Obama’s 1.3 million acre designation does not seem overly large given that archaeological fact.

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, ca. 1906. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Trump is not acting within his rights as president. The reversal of the designations flies in the face of the democratic process. To quote a recent NPR article: “There is nothing in the Antiquities Act that authorizes a president to modify a national monument once it’s been designated.” Indeed, a 1970s federal lands act says that authority is left to Congress. Hence, as a result of Trump’s misuse of the Antiquities Act, a Native American-led coalition, several companies including Patagonia, and paleontological and conservation groups are suing Trump.

The fate of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante hang in the balance. But so do 25 other national monuments designated by President Clinton, President W. Bush, and President Obama. Zinke’s April 2017 review is a threat to all of these monuments. 

Donald Trump and the Problem With “Boys Will Be Boys”

Stolen Land

One of the most troubling aspects of Trump’s decision is the harm it poses to Indigenous groups in Utah. A coalition of five tribes — Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Indian Tribe, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe — are sovereign nations each with cultural connections to the land of Bears Ears. The Utah Dine Bikeyah organization worked to gain the Bears Ears National Monument designation since 2010 and promote Indigenous involvement in the management of public lands. It seems only right that they do so, seeing as how the state itself was once Indigenous land.

“Making America White Again”

Amanda Marcotte’s eloquent article “Cutting up Bears Ears: The Ugly Racial Politics Behind the National Monument Battle,” summarizes the significance of race and ethnicity in the Bears Ears debate. The bigotry runs deep. Marcotte quotes Orrin Hatch’s despicable comments regarding “the Indians” who “don’t fully understand that a lot of the things that they currently take for granted on those lands, they won’t be able to do if it’s made clearly into a monument or a wilderness.”

The Lack of American Indian Representation in the Entertainment Industry and Its Affects

Apparently taking a cue from Hatch, Trump continues to use racially charged language to discuss Indigenous cultures and people. He has repeatedly referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” and reviving the pejorative at an event for Navajo veterans. Furthermore, he has attempted to illegally circumvent environmental assessments to approve the Dakota Access Pipeline. He has also made it abundantly clear that democratically-derived Native input is not important. Zinke’s evaluation of the national monuments came with lies indicating support from the tribes. When deciding on the suggested name for Bears Ears, the five tribe coalition selected a politically neutral English name instead of a name favoring one tribe’s language. Trump’s new borders use a Navajo name, disregarding the goal of the tribes to have a name to unify the whole coalition. Trump and Zinke ignore the wishes of the tribes at every level.

Moreover, these attacks must be read in light of Trump’s efforts to undermine President Obama’s work. Marcotte argues that Trump’s goal is truly “about making America white again.” Attacking the homeland of five indigenous tribes protected by America’s only Black president seems perfectly in line with a white supremacist agenda.

Ryan Zinke, United States Secretary of Interior
Ryan Zinke, United States Secretary of Interior. Image courtesy of Tami Heilemann/US Dept. of Interior.

Environmental Damage

Aside from racism, greed is a primary motivator for dismantling the monuments. According to the Washington Post, uranium interests proved significant in the decision to dismantle Bears Ears. With over 500 uranium mines on or near Native American land, pollution of natural resources that directly impact Indigenous livelihoods is not a factor in Trump’s decision-making. Therefore, Trump’s actions pose a huge danger to the environment. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, like the Arctic Refuge and other national monuments established by Obama, Clinton, and Bush, are critical to the planet’s well-being. Bears Ears alone is comparable to a National Park in terms of its biodiversity. Likewise, Grand Staircase-Escalante is equally significant in terms of diversity. Moreover, Grand Staircase-Escalante bears witness to the geological time that went into forming these gorgeous landscapes. The monument has been a wonder since the dinosaurs lived. 

It is important to remember that the planet is not for human use alone. We are just another species of animals who share the earth with countless others. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante protect rare plants and animals who have no way to safeguard the landscape. Protecting large areas of land for other living creatures is not something humans are good at. But one of the few things we all have in common is the fact that we need nature to survive.

Politics of Social Movements: How Effective is Collective Activism?

Conclusion: National Monuments Make America Great 

The situation at Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ear is an example of the Trump administration’s disdain for public interests, especially those supported by people of color. Moreover, shrinking the monuments threatens land that took millions of years to form. If the land sells for uranium and coal, it will not be easy to restore. By dividing the public land, Trump continues to divide the nation. Importantly, he is doing so illegally and against the wishes of most Americans.

The Citadel Ruins, Bears Ears National Monument. Image courtesy of Bob Wick, BLM.

The attack on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase is an attack on the environment, the rights of Indigenous people, and the democratic process. Ultimately, standing with the national monuments does more than protect a sacred and beautiful place. It is a stance against bigotry and devastation. The monuments celebrate the country’s history, land, and wildlife. 

As someone who is lucky to call Utah their home, I hope that others have the same privilege to walk in some of Utah’s national lands. Utah’s public lands are ancient and sacred. To see the stars at night is a rare treasure these days. Likewise, waking up to fresh air on a crisp desert morning to see small tracks reminds you that humans are part of nature, too. The monuments, and the history and ecology they protect, are what makes America great already.

Click here to learn more and support the organizations working to protect Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. If you are interested in protecting all of the National Monuments under review from the Trump Administration, contact your representatives and urge them to stand by the Antiquities Act. 

One Comment

  1. Paul R. Jones

    January 9, 2018 at 5:39 pm

    This whole “Indian tribal” thing is a plain fraud upon the United States Constitution…no Utah group based solely on their Indian ancestry/race are entitled to manage a national monument on behalf of We, the People…particularly when there is no meaningful Executive Branch control over the U.S./State citizens with “Indian ancestry/race” members of the supervisory Monument board as there is with federal employee management!

    It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is for politicians-state and federal-to dumb down as gullible non-Indian U.S./State citizens into believing that they-politicians-can pass common law that regulates from the womb to the tomb the health, welfare, safety, benefits, capacities, metes and boundaries of a select group of U.S./State citizens made distinguishable from all other non-Indian U.S./State citizens because of their “Indian ancestry/race” at the same time the Constitution’s 14th Amendment’s ‘equal protection’ foreclosed the very same politicians from enacting common law regulating from the womb to the tomb the health, welfare, safety, benefits, capacities, metes and boundaries for select group of U.S./State citizens with ‘slave ancestry/race’ all without a shred of Constitutional authority to do so.


Show ComicsVerse some Love! Leave a Reply!