Ancient Art and Artifacts in Utah Are Threatened by Oil and Gas

Bears Ears National Monument’s Valley of the Gods (courtesy the US Bureau of Land Management via Wikimedia)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The US Department of the Interior has finalized plans to allow drilling, mining, and grazing in once-protected national monuments in southern Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, by redrawing the boundaries of the monuments, reducing them by nearly 85 and 50 percent respectively. Bears Ears, located near Blanding, Utah, is home to numerous petroglyph sites, Native American cliff dwellings, and numerous historical artifacts. This land is tied to the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Nation, and many others. Grand Staircase-Escalante is popular among hikers, bikers, rock climbers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. Not only is the area home to ancient art sites, scientists have also unearthed 75-million-year-old dinosaur fossils of many species. In addition to ancient landmarks and artifacts, these lands are also home to large amounts of oil, gas, and coal which were specifically targeted for removal from monument status.

A legal battle is likely to take place over these sites as they are sacred to many Native American nations and treasured by scientists and recreationists. According to the US Forest Service, national monument status preserves “current uses of the land, including tribal access for traditional plant and firewood gathering and for ceremonial purposes, off-highway recreation on existing routes, grazing, hunting and fishing and water and utility infrastructure.” The Trump administration has said that the boundary changes were aimed at mitigating federal overreach, rather than boosting extractive industry development. The Interior Department’s acting assistant secretary for land and minerals management, Casey Hammond, said “we are advancing our goal to restore trust and be a good neighbor.” Hammond emphasized that federal environmental laws still apply to areas that are excluded from monuments.

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Hammond also said that in developing the plans for these national monuments, the Bureau of Land Management spoke with Native American tribes and took thousands of public comments into consideration. However, representatives from Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a nonprofit which led tribal attempts to safeguard the monument, called the BLM’s tribal outreach “insufficient.”

Under the new plans, almost one million acres in and around Grand Staircase, and much of Bears Ears, would open to grazing. It would also allow motorized vehicles to use any roads that were in use before the monuments were established, threatening artifacts and fossils that were protected by the monument status. New roads have also been proposed for construction.

The US Forest Service and Interior Department officials who manage Bears Ears and Grand Escalante have said the new plans will balance the need to protect these sites with the region’s economic concerns.

The 1906 Antiquities Act, passed by Theodore Roosevelt, recognizes archaeological sites located on public land as important public resources. The law gives presidents the power to designate and preserve public land with archaeological significance. Twenty years after President Clinton recognized Grand Staircase-Escalante as a national monument in 1996, President Barack Obama recognized Bears Ears a national monument using the Antiquities Act.

Ranchers and cattlemen have called the decision “welcome news for local communities and rural economies,” and Kaitlynn Glover of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said the 1906 Antiquities Act “has been abused to lock up millions of acres” that could be used for grazing and other agricultural activities.

Utah senators Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, as well as Governor Gary Herbert, who are all Republicans, have also praised the changes. Herbert told the Washington Post that “monuments should be as small as possible to protect artifacts and cultural resources. And they should not be created over the objections of local communities.”

Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said in a statement: “These plans represents the lowest common denominator for BLM stewardship […] One of the wildest landscapes in the lower 48 states will be lost if these plans are carried into action over the next few years.”


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