Late afternoon sun in the Indian Creek Unit of Bears Ears National Monument. [Photo credit Bob Wick / Bureau of Land Management]

Despite ongoing litigation, the Bureau of Land Management has released management plans for the two units of the Bears Ears National Monument, along with plans for each unit of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The monuments were reduced amid controversy in 2017 by President Donald Trump.

While the BLM emphasizes that the plans reflect collaboration between agencies, the public and local stakeholders, plaintiffs in the legal challenge to the monument’s reduction reacted with shock and anger to the news and raised concerns about mineral extraction, damage to archeological sites and a lack of communication with Indigenous tribes in the area.

In a Feb. 6 press release, the BLM said the plans were created to “restore long-overdue certainty to the public and provide responsible governance of these Federal lands.”

“The approved management plans for these two incredible national monuments are the result of extensive and deliberate collaboration between cooperating agency partners, local communities, stakeholders, the Utah Resource Advisory Council, Tribes, and the American public,” said BLM Utah Acting State Director Anita Bilbao in the release.

Plans for Bears Ears

Designation and management of these BLM areas, particularly Bears Ears, have been controversial over the last several years, which have been marked by intense animosity between local groups, national attention on the region, presidential proclamations, and federal lawsuits.

Bears Ears was first designated as a 1.35 million-acre contiguous monument by then-president Barack Obama in 2016. The following year, the Trump Administration issued a proclamation reducing the monument by 85%, separating it into two main units called Shash Jaa and Indian Creek, and citing the Antiquities Act as justification for the move. The 1906 act gives presidents the authority to designate national monuments; it also states that monuments should be confined to the smallest area possible to protect natural and cultural resources.

Three lawsuits, which have since been combined into one, were brought against the administration challenging the legality of that reduction in size. Native American tribes, environmental and conservation groups, and outdoor recreation groups are plaintiffs in the case. In January, the plaintiffs made a motion asking for summary judgment, in which the judge would rule on the case without holding a trial, signaling that one of the parties has no legitimate case to uphold. Parties are still waiting for the judge’s response to that motion.

Plaintiffs in the case have responded with outrage to the release of the final management plan. They claim the plan should never have been developed while the monument boundaries are still in dispute.

“This reckless management plan is an attempt to circumvent the courts, plain and simple,” said Brian Sybert, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, in a Feb. 6 press release.

They also characterize the plans as a waste of time, depending on what the courts rule.

“Assuming the plaintiffs succeed in the lawsuit and they deem Trump’s rescission illegal, these plans would be thrown out,” said Neal Clark in a phone conversation with the Moab Sun News.

Clark is the wildlands director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), a local nonprofit that is a party to the case.

“They would have to start over with the planning process for the full 1.35 million-acre monument… this whole planning process for these smaller monument units, we feel, has been a tremendous waste of agency resources and taxpayer dollars.”

Moab resident Rachel Nelson is president of the nonprofit climbing advocacy group Friends of Indian Creek. She said her organization also protests the way the planning process unfolded.

“[BLM officials] were supposed to meet with the advisory committee and then come up with the draft management plan,” Nelson said, referring to the monument advisory committee made up of stakeholders and experts. “They didn’t do that. That was one of the main issues we had. That was in the original mandate that they were supposed to do that. In our view, that sort of nullifies the whole thing.”

The advisory committee convened for the first time in summer 2019 in Monticello, Utah, to discuss management alternatives for Bears Ears that had already been outlined by BLM staff. The two-day conference ended at a rushed pace, with members running out of time to fully discuss management concerns like wildlife and paleontological resources.

“I think the advisory committee may have thought they were going to be more involved in the development of the management plan,” said San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, who serves on the monument advisory committee as a local elected official.

“But that wasn’t the purpose of the advisory committee…Their involvement is more in advising how that management plan will be implemented,” he explained.

Adams was active in advocating for the monument’s reduction along with then-commissioners Phil Lyman and Rebecca Benally. The three commissioners approved almost $500,000 in payments to a law firm to lobby officials in opposition to Bears Ears, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, and Adams attended the signing of the proclamation by Trump in December 2017.

Adams says he feels at peace with the contents of the final management plan, observing that the BLM did try to incorporate suggestions from the advisory committee. He said he has no idea how the ongoing lawsuit will end.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are taking issue not only with the process and finalization of the plan but also with its contents.

Davis Filfred is the board chairman for Utah Diné Bikéyah, a group made up of five tribes in the region of Bears Ears, who have advocated for the monument for years.

“The Trump Administration’s final management plan for Bears Ears National Monument is an example of how the federal government continues to ignore indigenous voices, and the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni,” said Filfred in the Feb. 6 press release from the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, naming the tribes represented in Utah Diné Bikéyah.

“Our concern, among other things, is that the [management plan] fails to include proper cultural and environmental protections, and leaves out the voice of Tribes and the elders who hold the most knowledge for these ancestral, public lands.”

Clark notes that the plan “opens the door” for more vegetation removal projects, for increased off-road vehicle use, and for larger recreational group sizes, all of which he says have the potential to damage the cultural resources that the monument is supposed to protect.

“It’s managing it as a monument in name only,” Clark said. “It’s not putting in place any protective measures that are going to protect cultural resources that this monument was originally designated to conserve.”