BY SCOTT WILLOUGHBY

The twin buttes rising from the sacred heart of Bears Ears National Monument in serene southeast Utah feel like an inappropriate site for a combat zone. Yet the signature symbols the monument is named for currently represent the battleground for a public lands power struggle the likes of which America hasn't seen in more than a century.

Since all water flows downhill, the Bears Ears Buttes share a kinship with the nearby San Juan River, making some small claim to bolstering the volume of family-friendly flatwater that winds between towering walls of ancient desert stone at the monument's doorstep. And in this land of chinle clay, the mixture of monuments and water illustrates a slippery slope indeed.

Earlier this week, the recently minted Bears Ears National Monument -- and the San Juan River forming a portion of its southern boundary -- became the primary target of the largest repeal of protections for U.S. public lands in history. President Donald Trump signed two executive orders on Monday, Dec. 4, designed to dramatically downsize Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. Others are expected to follow.

Trump's orders slice off some 85 percent of Bears Ears, reducing the monument from the original 1.35 million contiguous acres preserved by President Barack Obama in 2016 to a little more than 200,000 acres parsed out into four disjointed units. Just to the west, Grand Staircase-Escalante -- home to the treasured Escalante River -- was scaled back by nearly 50 percent from the original 1996 proclamation by President Bill Clinton, resulting in three distinct units totaling just over a million acres.

Calling the monuments "an abuse of power," President Trump followed the recommendation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to reduce the size of the two Utah monuments after a hasty review of 27 national monuments designated since 1996 under the Antiquities Act, which grants presidents authority to safeguard federal lands and waters under threat. Zinke's report also urges the president to reduce two other national monuments in the West -- Nevada's Gold Butte and Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou -- potentially opening up thousands of acres of the region's most revered landscapes and cultural artifacts to drilling, mining, logging and other development. Suggested size reductions are still being determined.


Klamath River, Cascade-Siskiyou N.M., California

The Upper Klamath River is within Cascade-Siskiyou N.M. (photo by Darin McQuoid)


Perhaps best known as the place scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy grazes cattle, Gold Butte currently protects almost 300,000 acres of desert rife with rock art, scenic sandstone towers and habitat for the threatened Mohave Desert tortoise and other wildlife. Cascade-Siskiyou, established by Clinton in 2000 and eventually expanded by Obama, protects about 113,000 acres in an area where three mountain ranges converge. It is home to the upper Klamath River and regarded as one of the most diverse ecosystems in the nation.

Zinke also suggests revising monument proclamations at Northeast Canyons and Seamounts in the Atlantic Ocean, both Rose Atoll and the Pacific Remote Islands in the Pacific Ocean, New Mexico's Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande Del Norte, and Maine's Katahdin Woods and Waters. Like the language of the report itself, the reasoning remains vague.

Rather than speculate as to why a president would attempt to reverse the tradition of creating national monuments established by 16 of his predecessors since Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the more relevant question is why we should care. After all, these areas remain federally managed public lands and waters even in the absence of monument status. So what difference does it make?
To borrow from our fearless leader, it's ultimately "precedential."

"An attack on one monument is an attack on them all and sets a precedent that none are safe, both existing and future," says Land Tawney, president and CEO of Montana-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. "What's next on the chopping block for America's public lands? The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness?"

Indeed, as Trump made his announcement in Salt Lake City last Monday, Utah congressman and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop -- who recently introduced a bill to overhaul the Antiquities Act -- told the audience this was "just the beginning."

Bishop and like-minded Utah elected officials have long championed the transfer of federally managed public lands to the states, going as far as passing a state law in 2012 that demands the federal government hand over some 31.2 million acres to the state of Utah. Never mind the reality that 70 percent of state-controlled public lands have historically been sold to private entities. Utah already has sold off some 55 percent of the 7.5 million acres granted to it by the federal government at statehood.

A large-scale transfer of public lands to the states could prove catastrophic to the paddling and outdoor recreation communities. According to the Outdoor Alliance Geographic Information System (GIS) Lab, some 43 percent of paddling occurs on public lands in the 11 Western states primarily targeted for land transfer legislation, to say nothing of the 71 percent of climbing, 12,659 miles of mountain biking trails and 193,500 miles of hiking trails on public lands measured by the group.

Although Trump's order will be slow out of the starting gate due to a series of lawsuits already filed by a lengthy list of plaintiffs ranging from outdoor retail giant Patagonia to conservation groups like The Wilderness Society and the five Native American tribes representing the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, even a single reduction to a monument's status will have far-reaching impacts.

That leaves a future of uncertainties for several national monuments cherished by the paddling community, effectively stripping protection guarantees from places like the Arkansas River through Browns Canyon National Monument, the Rio Grande through Rio Grande Del Norte, and the Green/Yampa rivers through Dinosaur -- famously saved from dam construction by David Brower and “protected” as a national monument. The concept of protections deteriorate when the Chief Executive can roll back a monument’s status on a whim, opening the lands up to potential development, management abuses and the possibility of state land transfers.


Rio Grande del Norte N.M, New Mexico

The Rio Grande Gorge, which includes the Taos Box runs, is within this monument under review. (photo by Daniel Schwen/ Wikipedia Creative Commons)


"Never before has a president moved so aggressively to eliminate protection of so much public land. Never before has a president displayed such blatant disregard for the importance of public lands to our heritage, economy, clean water and identity as Americans," American Rivers President Bob Irvin stated in response to Trump's announcement. "Shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments to allow for coal mining and oil and gas development threatens sacred Native American sites and streams that feed the Colorado and San Juan rivers, the lifeblood of canyon country. The president's action is an insult to all who value cultural heritage, outdoor recreation, and responsible stewardship of our shared natural resources."

While adjustments to national monument boundaries have been made by the executive branch in the past, there were some significant differences. President Woodrow Wilson, for instance, cut the size of Washington's Mount Olympus National Monument in half to increase timber production during World War I. That acreage was subsequently returned and eventually increased when the monument was proclaimed a national park. Other monument reductions, such as the Grand Canyon, saw similar fates and none of them have ever been tested in a court of law, according to the Congressional Research Service. Before Monday, no president had attempted to adjust a national monument boundary in more than 50 years.

That's likely due in no small part to the overwhelming public support for maintaining and protecting America's national monuments, including some 98 percent of the more than 2.5 million people who submitted comments during Secretary Zinke's review -- a number that Zinke somehow managed to ignore.

"I don't yield to public pressure," Zinke told reporters on Tuesday. "Sound public policy is not based on threats of lawsuit. It's doing what's right."

To the majority of Americans, it would seem the administration's version of "sound public policy" in this instance amounts to perpetuation of the myth that federal ownership -- and preservation -- of so much land in Utah and elsewhere in the West is somehow "abusive" or unfair. It suggests that pristine waters, biological diversity, clean air, starry skies, rare artifacts, native traditions and remote locations somehow undermine the value of places like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, and that they'd be better off without them.

Clearly, the battle is at hand, and the sacred lands of America's oldest inhabitants are subject to the same peril as the sacred policies that preserve them. We would all do well to remember that Bears Ears is a place of peace. Let it rest.

-- Read more from Willoughby on the access battle brewing over paddling's sacred public lands.

-- RELATED: A Utah paddler’s case for Bears Ears, plus 8 great national monument paddling trips.