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Sunset at Bears Ears National Monument.

Bob Wick/BLM

Science and politics collide over Bears Ears and other national monuments

President Donald Trump signed an executive order yesterday calling on the Department of the Interior (DOI) to review “all Presidential designations or expansions of designations under the Antiquities Act made since January 1, 1996.”  Why would a new president with so much on his plate care about 24 parcels of land and sea that his three immediate predecessors decided to protect permanently?

The answer, not surprisingly, is politics. Opponents of such designations see them as unwanted federal interventions. And that’s why Trump has asked Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review those decisions, starting with an expanse of land in southeastern Utah surrounding a twin pair of mesas known as Bears Ears. Its designation was one of former President Barack Obama’s last acts in office.

“In December of last year alone, the federal government asserted this power over 1.35 million acres of land in Utah, known as Bears Ears—I’ve heard a lot about Bears Ears, and I hear it’s beautiful—over the profound objections of the citizens of Utah,” Trump said during a signing ceremony at DOI. “The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it’s time we ended this abusive practice,” he added. 

Why do scientists think Bears Ears should be a national monument?  And why are some Utahns so angry? Let’s dig in.

What sort of antiquities might it hold?

Bears Ears preserves one of the best records in the United States of the middle to late Triassic, the era of the rise of the dinosaurs. It contains rocks dating to between 240 million and 200 million years old, according to paleontologist Robert Gay, now at the Colorado Canyons Association in Grand Junction, who had spearheaded the push for the designation and talked to ScienceInsider when the monument was created in December 2016. The Triassic was a strange time, Gay notes, with “little tiny, puny things running around getting eaten by everything else out there, giant toilet-headed reptiles, strange plant-eating crocodiles with giant pig snouts. Dinosaurs were a rare and minor component of this ecosystem.”

Right on top of those rocks in Bears Ears, Gay says, are rock layers from the very early Jurassic, with “dinosaurs everywhere. It’s one of the few places in the U.S. where we can directly document that huge faunal turnover.” Archaeologists have also long pushed for the Bears Ears designation, noting that it contains more than 100,000 archaeological sites, including cliff dwellings, rock art, and other structures belonging to Ancestral Pueblo people.

What’s the value of a national monument designation, aside from protection?

Frankly, it’s about money. Utah, like many states, has struggled to fund its own paleontology program. The state’s Bureau of Land Management office currently has just one paleontologist and two law enforcement officers. The national monument designation comes with a mandate for more funding for law enforcement, which means more eyes on the ground to keep fossil thieves at bay and more money for education “so that people know there are fossils out there,” Gay says.

Can Trump really reverse the designation?

A president designates a national monument under the Antiquities Act, using authority delegated to him by Congress. So in effect, the creation of a monument is an act of Congress. That’s why a subsequent president can’t just undo its creation by an executive order. But it’s not clear whether the president can use the Antiquities Act to rescind or shrink a monument, something that would be unprecedented. Trump’s directive to Zinke may or may not set any such changes in motion: He directs the secretary to “review” whether the monuments are of historic or scientific interest—and whether the amount of land set aside is appropriate to meet this designation. The order also directs Zinke to ponder multiple uses on these lands, and whether the designation affects the use of lands not within the boundaries. For Bears Ears, Trump wants a preliminary report with suggested legislative acts within 45 days.

Do scientists think the land set aside in the Bears Ears National Monument is big enough to protect its treasures?

Not surprisingly, Obama’s order was a compromise. There’s a large region, called Red Canyon, that was dropped from the final monument boundary—it, too, contains a trove of Triassic fossils, Gay says. But mining companies are interested in its uranium deposits, and pushed successfully to exclude the canyon in the monument. Red Canyon has an existing mine, the Daneros Uranium Mine, which produces a concentrated form of uranium (known as yellow cake) to make fuel rods for power plants. The national monument designation would prohibit new mining operations, and the mine’s owner, Energy Fuels, is seeking to expand the mine from its current 2 hectares to about 19 hectares.

Who contested Bears Ears’ designation?

Land management is an extremely touchy issue in Utah, where some 65% of the state’s land is owned by the federal government. Two decades earlier, President Bill Clinton had angered many state leaders with the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (see below); the battle over Bears Ears has tapped into that long-simmering anger.

In July 2016, Representative Rob Bishop (R–UT), who is also the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources, and Representative Jason Chaffetz (R–UT) rolled out their Utah Public Lands Initiative, which included plans for what is now Bears Ears National Monument. However, the proposal, which promoted fossil fuel development in parts of the region and allowed motorized recreation, met with stiff opposition from both environmental and tribal groups, as well as from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Bishop and Chaffetz tried unsuccessfully to win House approval for their plan before President Obama made the announcement.

Is Bears Ears the primary target?

The period Trump chose, extending back to 1996, includes two of the most controversial monuments in recent years: Bears Ears and the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, also in Utah. That monument spans about 760,000 hectares and has proved, since its designation, to be fertile ground for hunting dinosaur bones, particularly from the Late Cretaceous.

In 2002, scientists unearthed the giant, 75-million-year-old duckbilled dinosaur Gryposaurus monumentensis. The region has yielded a diverse array of tens of thousands of fossils, including horned dinos called ceratopsians such as Kosmoceratops richardsoni, duck-billed dinos, and two new species of tyrannosaurs—including the 81-million-year-old Lythronax argestes, the oldest known tyrannosaurid. Grand Staircase-Escalante also contains ruins and rock art from both the pre-Columbian Fremont people and the Ancestral Pueblo peoples.