Environmentalists Shred Plans to Develop Shrunken Bears Ears Monument

An aerial view of Arch Canyon within Bears Ears National Monument in Utah on May 8, 2017. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, File)

(CN) – Democrats and environmentalists vilified a Trump administration plan announced Friday to open up Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument to development in areas that once enjoyed protection.

The Bureau of Land Management released its final plan for what’s left of Bears Ears after President Donald Trump dramatically reduced the national monument via executive order this past December. The plans allow for development of roads and utility lines within the monument as well as brush removal from certain areas.

“This plan recklessly weakens protections even for the land that remains in the monument, failing to protect important sites from threats like ATV use, looting, vandalism, and damage from target shooting,” said Congressman Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., in a statement Friday.

Trump reduced the Bears Ears by 85 percent, slicing the 1.3 million acres designated by Barack Obama near the end of his presidency in 2016 to about 200,000 acres.

Josh Ewing, the executive director of the Friends of Cedar Mesa, said Trump administration officials who claimed the reduction would make the monument easier to protect undermined their rationale with Friday’s announcement.

“This plan makes a mockery of those smokescreens,” he said.

Target shooting, which has historically damaged Native American cultural sites, is allowed, as is vegetation removal, Ewing said. Travel and visitor management is all but absent from the plan, which includes an ATV route through culturally rich and scenic areas.

“This management plan attempts to make Bears Ears a ‘second class monument,’ denying it protections historically afforded by inclusion in the National Conservation Lands,” Ewing said.

BLM officials say the plan was formulated after six months of public engagement and attempts to balance recreation access with the protection of culturally significant areas.

“These plans will provide a blueprint to protect the awe-inspiring natural and cultural resources that make this monument nationally significant, while enhancing recreational opportunities and ensuring access to traditional uses,” said Utah State Director Ed Roberson.

Environmentalists point to a federal court case that will decide whether a president has the authority to unilaterally reduce monuments designated under the Antiquities Act.

“If we win the legal fight to restore Bears Ears National Monument, this plan will just be 800 pages of wasted effort,” said Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountains office.

A federal judge is currently considering motions to dismiss in two cases that say Trump exceeded his authority in ordering the reductions. The other case relates to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which Trump reduced by 47% via the same executive order.

BLM said the plan prohibits target shooting in proximity to petroglyphs and other cultural resources, but critics called such protections “vague.”

Perhaps the biggest issue relates to chaining, which will still be allowed under the stipulations of the plan. Chaining involves two motorized vehicles dragging a heavy chain in order to uproot trees and large brush. Proponents say the process helps protect against wildfires.

Those opposed to the practice say ranchers are using wildfires as a smokescreen so they can clear land and make it more amenable for grazing cattle.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans wrote to the Department of Interior protesting both the reduction and the subsequent management plan. Former Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the numbers were inflated by coordinated campaigns by environmental groups.

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