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The debate over the economic value of public lands will get center stage in Utah this weekend, as outdoor enthusiasts and Native American tribes rally in opposition to President Trump’s likely announcement that he will reduce the size of two National Monuments there.
Supporters of Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase-Escalante National Monuments are converging on Utah Salt Lake City, Saturday (December 2). Thousands of Native American rights supporters, outdoor recreation enthusiasts, small business owners, and environmental advocates are expected to turn out in opposition to President Trump’s expected action to shrink both tracts of public land.
Since its designation in 1996, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Southern Utah has been a focus of many debates about the changing nature of public land use in rural America. The debate heightened last year when the status of the adjacent Bears Ears National Monument was finalized, just before President Obama left office.
President Trump will issue his decision on both Monuments’ future on Monday. He is expected to shrink the land area of the Monuments, which would allow additional commercial uses.
Joshua Lenart, Utah state chapter leader of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, has spent countless hours exploring the vast region. “There’s this sense in the rural communities of Utah that things are changing, that new people are coming to the area and that the economy has changed for good. Some of the people that have lived there for a long time, they feel like the Monuments represent the new people and the changes they see around them,” Lenart said. Many of these “old timers” are opposed to the new visitors and land management the National Monument brings.
Native Americans, who’ve lived in the region much longer, broadly support the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, who worked for years to establish the monument, is made up of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni and the Ute Indian Tribe. They support the region’s protections through Monument designation because rules allow traditional use of the land for foraging, hunting and gathering wood while also ramping up protection of Native cultural resources and history.
“The cultural resources here, the petroglyphs, the structures, all of this, is evidence of the Native people who lived in and passed through the Bears Ears,” said Octavius Seowtew, a Zuni elder. “It provides a link to our ancestors, from long ago.”
President Trump’s decision to shrink the Utah Monuments is the result of an administrative review by the Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke. The Trump administration’s review of National Monuments is in response to critics who say federal land should prioritize extractive uses such as energy production, timber harvesting, and grazing.
The review considered recommendations of size and management changes within the National Monument portfolio. Since Zinke released the executive summary of his report in August, the White House has been mum on its plans. Trump’s visit to Utah to make his announcement is the first real confirmation of the administration’s position.
Opponents of the Trump administration’s plans to remove land from the National Monuments say the region is better off because of the outdoor economy the monuments support. A report by Headwaters Economics, an independent research group that focuses on economic trends and public lands in the West. says jobs increased 42% since 2001 in the Grand Staircase-Escalante was given Monument status. The gains are primarily in the service sector from health care and tourism, the report says.
Headwaters reports that from 2001 to 2015, the 24-percent job growth in the rural region was fueled entirely by service-sector employment. The number of traditional jobs in sectors like agriculture and mining fell slightly. Garfield and Kane counties, which neighbor the Grand Staircase-Escalante region, saw above average growth in population and income. A separate Headwaters report shows a positive correlation between public lands and a county’s economic performance.
The outdoor industry creates 7.6 million jobs and $887 billion in consumer spending annually, according to the annual report from the Outdoor Industry Association. .
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers’s Lenart said that you can see the changes happening on the ground. “Towns like Boulder and Torrey, they’re growing quickly because of the Monuments. I was there a few months ago, and there were buses full European tourists checking out the petroglyphs and archeology, spending real money in a region that needs it,” Lenart said. “Scaling back monuments isn’t going to lead to a boom for oil and gas. There’s already thousands of wells that are not producing anything because of economic reasons.”
National Monument designation is one tool that presidents have used since Teddy Roosevelt to wade into the land management debate, with authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Monument designation can be used for historic preservation, to save Native American cultural resources, to steer commercial development, and to limit the impact of activities such as mining. Protections are specific to each monument, and multi-use protections that can allow grazing rights and other resource uses are the norm for the Western states’ largest monuments. Fifteen of the 17 on a Headwaters list of monuments allow grazing. Others allow existing timber harvest agreements to be honored. And most allow motorized vehicles, hunting, fishing, and access to inholdings.
Lenart is hopeful that he will one day be able to hunt for mule deer or elk in the Monuments. “So far, I’ve never been able to draw a tag,” Lenart said. A report from Lenart’s organization documents that hunters there have harvested elk, black bear, bighorn sheep, and mule deer.
“But this is one of those special places, a once-in-a-lifetime experience a lot of Americans are looking for to get out in the rugged backcountry and pursue our passion,” Lenart said. “Public lands are our legacy and heritage. We have to protect it.”