The Trump Administration's recent decision to shrink Bears Ears National Monument by over 85 percent has sparked outrage across the country, with everyone from elected officials to clothing companies weighing in. However, the problems plaguing the monument – such as irresponsible tourism – began long before President Trump's Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, redrew the lines of the protected wilderness area in Utah.
Ralph Burrillo, an archaeologist who specializes in the Bears Ears region, says the region is unique in terms of its cultural and archaeological significance. The vast number of archaeological sites have yielded artifacts that help scientists like Burrillo better understand prehistoric Americans' culture, environment, and history.
"The archaeological assemblage there is unlike any that you'll find elsewhere in the Americas," Burrillo explained. "When the Antiquities Act was created in 1906, it was passed into law by President Teddy Roosevelt, but it was actually written by an archaeologist named Edgar Lee Hewett who was writing about Mesa Verde, Chaco, and Bears Ears. Those are exactly the places that he intended for this new legislation to protect."
National Monuments like Bears Ears are created through the Antiquities Act, which in 1906 established the ability for presidents to set aside wilderness regions in the United States to protect them for future generations. Bears Ears has long been regarded as one of the most beautiful regions in the American West and is tied closely to the heritage of five Native American tribes' cultures, with more than 100,000 sacred sites known in the region. It was due to this natural beauty and importance to Native American tribes that Obama declared the region a national monument in 2016.
However, the decision to designate Bears Ears a national monument was not popular with everyone, stirring up controversy in southern Utah. According to Burrillo, this controversy actually helped increase tourism in the area. As Bears Ears continued to make headlines after the designation, more tourists set out to explore the region and visitation grew exponentially. As it did, rangers saw the destruction of Bears Ears' archaeological sites increase.
"I've gone to visit sites where people come and they bring their trusty, lovable mutt who excavates [digs up sites]. I've seen kids climbing on walls. There's one iconic ruin there called Monarch Cave where a couple of hikers or photographers were posing, leaning against the wall that has been in place since the 1200s, and knocked it over."
Burrillo isn't the only one to have noticed these issues. Friends of Cedar Mesa, a non-profit organization that works to protect public lands and the artifacts in them, launched the Visit with Respect campaign in 2016 to combat the destruction and degradation of Bears Ears' unique cultural and geological sites. Erica Turner, the Program Manager of Visit with Respect, said that the increased foot traffic recently has caused a domino effect on both the cultural and ecological landscape of the monument.
"A big problem is people pick up the pieces of pottery that they find…over the years we've watched sites and the information that the pottery shards contain just walks away. When the decorated pieces have gone, it's much harder to learn about the different cultures that were living there."
Similarly, as visitation has exploded, Turner has noticed that the desert ecosystem itself has been impacted.
"A lot of these backcountry sites don't have constructed trails so… we're seeing more extensive little side trails," Turner explained. "The desert ground is actually really fragile. As it gets walked on, that gets worn away and the sand starts to erode."
Although better-funded public lands like National Parks have the ability to minimize such impacts through better trail development and management, Burrillo explains that budget cuts to public land management agencies and now the reduction of Bears Ears as a national monument have made this kind of "front-country" development difficult.
"There's precious little that can be done to stop [damage by tourists] except to get more law enforcement on the ground, do more stabilization trailwork to try to direct those impacts as much as possible. That's what a monument is intended to do: give the agencies a bit more power…to convict and stop looters and to develop front country areas to try to buffer some of those impacts."
All public land in the United States is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which is funded by the Department of the Interior with the aim of protecting America's public lands. When designated by Congress or the President, national monuments set aside some of these lands as protected areas to be co-managed by the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies like the U.S. Forest Service. Unlike National Parks, these monuments still allow previously permitted activities (such as mining, drilling, and ranching) to continue on the site – only new leases for resource extraction operations are halted.
When the Bears Ears National Monument was founded, it generated immense backlash from some Utah residents. Much of this backlash, Burrillo believes, stemmed from misunderstanding about the monument by the ranching communities surrounding it.
Many Utahns believe that the monument would restrict lucrative activities like cattle grazing and mining, and while the monument would prohibit new mining leases, the portion of Bears Ears open to ranching before the monument was declared remained open after the monument was created.
Regardless of this controversy, however, many legal experts currently view the Administration's scaleback of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments as illegal.
"Presidents lack the authority to reduce prior monuments," said Sean Hecht, Co-Executive Director of UCLA's Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. Hecht was one of 121 scholars of public lands, environmental, and natural resources law who signed a letter to the Department of the Interior stating that reducing the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante was illegal.
What worries Burrillo, however, is the likelihood of this move becoming legal in the near future. Under the current Antiquities Act, the President cannot legally change a previously declared national monument. This is what has allowed environmental organizations and other entities to challenge the President's proclamation about Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante in court. However, if Congress passes legislation that changes the Antiquities Act or legalizes a specific change to a national monument, this will make reductions to national monuments legal not only for these two national monuments in Southern Utah, but for other monuments across the United States.
House of Representatives bill H.R. 4532 would do exactly this. The bill legalizes Trump's proclamation reducing Bears Ears and paves the way for future bills doing the same to other monuments.
"If the House Resolution [H.R. 4532] gets passed, we've got a real hard battle on our hands, because that would make [Trump's] action legal," Burrillo said.
As this bill makes its way through Congress, tourism traffic continues to grow exponentially in Bears Ears and funding to prevent damage to its sites continues to shrink.
"Unfortunately," Turner explains. "While visitation has increased, federal budgets going towards [public lands] has not increased – that has been cut dramatically."
Both Turner and Burrillo maintain that Bears Ears needs more funding, but where that funding will come from stands to be seen.