On December 5, 2017, President Trump met with Mormon leaders, passed some protesters on the way to the state capitol, held a ceremony in the rotunda, where he held up a proclamation that all but destroys the Bears Ears National Monument, then jetted back to DC. It took him a mere three hours to undo years of work.
Utah has always had an unbalanced, fraught relationship with federal authority. Some Utahns view a democratic president declaring a national monument on federal/public land to be a prime example of federal overreach. Trump’s action was payback delivered big league. Other Utahns think that Clinton and Obama were wise to protect immense areas of southern Utah’s red rock marvels for posterity. Presidents from both parties have used the Antiquities Act in this way, and many of Utah’s national parks began as monuments. For these Utahns, Trump’s proclamation was unprecedented, unnecessary, and unjustifiable.
All of this reminded me of my dad. Many years ago, I was working on some investigative journalism that outlined the ways in which R. Earl Holding, a very wealthy man, was afforded special consideration to host winter Olympic events at his ski resort, Snowbasin. I described to my dad the ways in which Holding was calling in some favors from several Utah elected leaders, including Orrin Hatch, and how the leaders were being remarkably helpful.
My dad knew both Orrin Hatch and Earl Holding. He looked at me with a kind of knowing wistfulness. He didn’t need to say what was on his mind: life isn’t fair, son. Some people do indeed get extra privileges. Wealth entitles this, to some extent. You ought to worry about things that you can change.
Today I was also reminded of the times I drove my dad and mother, both elderly, down the Burr Trail and into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. They just loved the slow driving. Grand Staircase-Escalante was like Capitol Reef, only bigger. My dad talked about an early case he’d had regarding the Circle Cliffs—the great landform we could see from the end of Long Canyon. They’d worked hard, my parents. They were born in 1925. They’d paid into the system. A new national monument was a great thing, a thing that they absolutely supported.
From its roots, conservation is a conservative principle. It ought to transcend political parties. And Utahns, proud of their state, should support preserving its wonders.
On December 5, Trump sliced the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in half, with the same proclamation that gutted Bears Ears.
If ever a federally managed public land deserved protection under the Antiquities Act, it is Bears Ears. There are thousands of archaeological sites. Many of the canyons are of the “turn a corner, see another ruin” type. More than that, Bears Ears is considered sacred. It is origin land to many Native Americans, including members of the five tribes, Dine-Bikeyah, who participated in the painstaking review process that led to Obama’s 2016 proclamation.
For years federal Department of Interior staff surveyed the treasures and wondered how best to protect them, mainly from pot hunters. And for once, tribal voices were heard. Due process and due diligence were exercised. Decisions were based on facts and artifacts.
Obama declared 1.35 million acres to be Bears Ears National Monument in 2016. This was itself a compromise. An original proposal was to preserve 1.9 million acres of land, to cast a protective net over a vast land rich in heritage and sacred sites. The 1.35 compromise came from the so-called Public Lands Initiative, a desultory effort by Utah representatives Bishop and Chaffetz to undertake some protection with asterisks. Obama, afraid that his push might be too big, scaled back to this compromise.
Trump tossed all of this out the window. His new monuments at Bears Ears total a little over 200,000 acres, a reduction of over 80 percent. What is the justification for this? There really isn’t any. It ignores years of painstaking, cooperative work. The reduction can’t be for mineral and oil and gas exploration, since Utah governor Gary Herbert has admitted there isn’t much evidence of such resources there. It can’t be for grazing, since grazing is allowed, or was allowed, in the larger national monument.
Although Hatch didn’t support Trump at first and called his Access Hollywood comments “offensive and disgusting,” eventually he changed his tune and backed the tycoon. Today, they are the best of allies, and Hatch took the lead role in the monument dismemberment. In Utah it seems there’s always been Orrin. I was present at the senatorial debate at Cottonwood High School in suburban Salt Lake City in 1976, when candidate Hatch told Senator Frank E. Moss, a liberal Democrat, “Three terms is enough, Senator.” Seven Hatch terms later, “Forever Orrin” has allied with Trump to drop this coprolite of a legacy.
Our best and perhaps only defense against tyranny is the judiciary. Suits will be served and briefs will be filed. My mother used to say “two wrongs don’t make a right.” The Antiquities Act clearly allows presidents to protect lands. It does not allow for a president to undo his predecessor’s declarations. And yes, this may be a slope as slippery as the Chinle Formation. If the courts let this stand, then all national monuments (and perhaps national parks) can be altered according to the whims of people in power.
Kevin Holdsworth is the author of Big Wonderful: Notes from Wyoming and Good Water. His work has appeared in numerous periodicals, including Cimarron Review, Post Road, Creative Nonfiction, and Denver University Law Review. In 2009 he was awarded the Wyoming Arts Council creative writing fellowship for fiction. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, and son, Chris, in south-central and southern Utah.