Here’s how conservationists plan to fight back against Trump’s attack on Utah’s monuments

Meet the activists fighting to protect Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Supporters of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments hold signs during a rally Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Salt Lake City. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Supporters of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments hold signs during a rally Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Salt Lake City. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

There’s a legend in Utah about the first time Mormon leader Brigham Young saw the Salt Lake Valley after trekking west with the Mormon pioneers. As the story goes, Young arrived on July 24, 1847, and when he saw the valley, said, “This is the place.”

The sentiment has carried on among locals in the state for a century and a half now. To many Utahns, there is something special about their land. The state is home to five national parks and millions of acres of public wildlife refuges, forests, wilderness lands, and monuments.

But on Monday afternoon, President Trump landed in the Salt Lake Valley and officially announced — in a speech purportedly about monuments but which ended up seeming to focus more on Christmas and how Trump was going to make it “bigger” and “better” than ever — that he was shrinking two of Utah’s national monuments by roughly 2 million acres.

It is the largest reduction made by any president to monuments designated under the 1906 Antiquities Act. For many activists, it was also a declaration of war.

“I’ve come to Utah to take a very historic action, to reverse federal overreach and restore the rights of this land to your citizens,” Trump said on Monday. “Your timeless bond with the outdoors should not be replaced with the whims of regulators thousands and thousands of miles away. They don’t know your land and truly, they don’t care for your land like you do.”

The announcement falsely painted the declaration as a move that would return the land to the people, as Trump claimed the monument designation prevents local people from hunting and stops cattle from grazing on the land. That isn’t true, of course; what it does do is prevent new drilling, mining, and fracking in the area.

By shrinking the sizes of the two monuments, Trump isn’t returning the land to the locals. He’s handing it, gift wrapped, to big oil and gas corporations. Such a move is unacceptable to conservationists in the state, and on Monday, they said wouldn’t go down without a fight.

Trump’s announcement significantly diminishes two monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante: Grand Staircase-Escalante, a protected area of more than 1.8 million acres, was designated by President Clinton in 1996, and Bears Ears, which is made up of about 1.35 million acres, was designated by President Obama just last year.

In addition to being recreational havens, Bears Ears is considered sacred land by the Indigenous tribes in the area.

Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, was walking up to the capitol in Salt Lake Monday to join an anti-Trump, pro-monument protest when he spoke with ThinkProgress over the phone.

“Trump’s on the wrong side of history with an attack on the tribes and what’s the largest attack on America’s public lands by a president,” Groene said. After a beat, he added, “but it won’t stand.”

The alliance, along with the Navajo Nation and other conservation and environmental groups, intends to take the administration to court over Trump’s decision. The groups argue that the president does not have the authority to make the changes he wants to make, and a win could make permanent the monuments’ original boundaries.

A loss, on the other hand, would affirm the executive branch’s right to not only designate monuments, but also give Trump and the presidents who come after him much more latitude to shrink protected lands in favor of development and industry.

The legal fight will be a long and arduous process, so advocates are making plans for how to protect the land while the fight wages on.

Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, another group that will be taking the administration to court, said his nonprofit is doubling down on its efforts to protect Bears Ears and educate visitors in the meantime.

“We never thought this was going to be easy, but we’re more resolved than ever,” Ewing told ThinkProgress Monday. “…Our biggest job is standing up for this landscape while the political and legal fights play out.”

That work, Ewing said, includes continuing to build fences to keep cattle away from archeological sites. Other activists say they’ll continue working to keep local political institutions from blazing new routes for motorized vehicles.

“The big issue is how…we manage skyrocketing visitation to this area in the meantime while the government doesn’t do anything to address the issue,” Ewing said.

Ultimately, Friends of Cedar Mesa have decided, if Trump won’t help them, they’ll just do it themselves. The group started a kickstarter to raise the $100,000 they need to purchase an old bar in Bluff, Utah that they will use as a visitor education center. As of Monday, they’ve raised more than $78,000.

“There’s not even a sign telling you you’ve entered the monument. The administration has done nothing on the ground to make the monument real,” Ewing said Monday morning. “We’re just going to take matters into the hands of the people.”

Bears Ears has also been important to recreation enthusiasts, including the local rock climbing community. Rock climbing was officially acknowledged in Obama’s proclamation designating Bears Ears a monument, and Access Fund, a group that represents climbers, told ThinkProgress Monday that the fund has been working closely with local tribes and is gearing up to fight Trump. 

“We’re committed to fighting to maintain Bears Ears National Monument and maintaining gains the conservation and recreation communities have gotten,” Erik Murdock, Access Fund’s national policy director, told ThinkProgress Monday.

Although Murdock would not say whether Access Fund was going to join the lawsuit, he did say that their “strategy has been to take appropriate measures to protect this area” and that protecting the land is important to the fund because it also protects a hard-fought acknowledgement for the climbing community.

Conservationist groups aren’t the only ones who have been fighting for the monuments. Andrea Hirmhoff, the executive director of Action Utah, said she’s seen significant interest in protecting the monuments recently. Her group, a nonpartisan civic engagement group that was formed after the 2016 election, aims to help people engage with issues they care about in their communities.

“The national monuments is one of those issues that have gotten a lot of attention on both sides,” Hirmhoff said in an interview with ThinkProgress Monday. And while Action Utah doesn’t usually take stances on issues, they will when they feel that the majority of Utahns agree. In this case, Hirmhoff said, they’ve chosen to support keeping the monuments in place.

Leading up to Monday’s announcement, Action Utah helped their members lobby local officials, write letters, and create fact-based arguments about preserving the monuments. But one of the problems with the debate about the monuments, Hirmhoff said, is that many politicians in the state have worked to incite political divisions around the monuments where there aren’t any.

“It’s really tragic for our state the amount of political dealings [around the monuments],” Hirmhoff said. “It’s up to us to heal those divisions.”

According to a recent poll commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah, Utahns oppose breaking up Grand Staircase-Escalante by a margin of two to one, and just a slight majority believes Bears Ears is too big. Elected officials on both the state and national level, however, have presented an almost uniformly united front in favor of plans to reduce the size of the monuments.

“Nobody ever said protecting a place like this in the political landscape of Utah would ever be easy,” Ewing of Friends of Cedar Mesa said Monday, but, he added, “We believe we’re absolutely on the right side of history.”