WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump made a curious case for stripping federal protections from vast stretches of two of America’s national monument lands.
For one, he said his decision will give Native Americans back their “rightful voice over the sacred land.” But they already have specified rights on the land, thanks to the national monument designation under the Antiquities Act, and fear losing those rights under his decision. That’s why they’re fighting his action in court.
Trump also said that because of his decision, “families will hike and hunt on land they have known for generations, and they will preserve it for generations to come. Cattle will graze along the open range. Sweeping landscapes will inspire young Americans to dream beyond the horizon.”
But hiking, hunting and cattle-grazing are already allowed on the lands that make up the two national monuments he is targeting in Utah: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. If the loss of protection spurs energy development, people may see mines on a sweeping landscape where they are now forbidden.
A look at his statement in Salt Lake City on Monday about his plan to reduce Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by nearly half:
TRUMP: “As many of you know, past administrations have severely abused the purpose, spirit and intent of a century-old law known as the Antiquities Act. This law requires that only the smallest necessary area be set aside for special protection as national monuments.”
THE FACTS: That’s not exactly what Teddy Roosevelt’s 1906 preservation law says. It states, in essence, that the federal government should not bite off more than it can chew when a president designates an area for protection. It doesn’t demand that such land be kept to a minimum. Such protected land “shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected,” it says.
—”We have seen how this tragic federal overreach prevents many Native Americans from having their rightful voice over the sacred land where they practice their most important ancestral and religious traditions.”
—”Here, and in other affected sites, we have seen harmful and unnecessary restrictions on hunting, ranching and responsible economic development. We have seen grazing restrictions prevent ranching families from passing their businesses and beloved heritage on to the children, the children that they love. We’ve seen many rural families stopped from enjoying their outdoor activities, and the fact that they’ve done it all their lives made no difference to the bureaucrats in Washington.”
THE FACTS: Native rights are generally enshrined on national monument lands, not terminated. So are other public uses of the land. What’s most at stake is new mining, logging or commercial development.
Of the two Utah monuments, Grand Staircase is the primary prospect for potential mining because of past interest in a large coal reserve on the lands. Worries about Bears Ears are mainly about disturbing Native American artifacts and general disrespect for land considered sacred by multiple tribes.
Trump’s point about “responsible economic development” goes to the heart of the actual debate over whether Washington is imposing unreasonable restrictions in monument lands. And ranchers bristle under what they consider heavy-handed rules for grazing on these lands.
But the notion that rural families can’t enjoy the beauty of a national monument is unsupported.
When President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears a year ago, for example, current uses of the land were maintained, tribal access among them. It was “closed to new extractive uses such as mining and oil and gas development.” Among the activities or installations allowed: “traditional collection of plants and firewood, off-highway vehicle recreation, hunting and fishing, legal grazing, military training operations, and utility corridors.”
Five tribes lobbied Obama to declare Bears Ears a national monument to preserve lands that are home to ancient cliff dwellings and an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites. Native Americans visit the area to perform ceremonies, collect herbs and wood for medicinal and spiritual purposes, and do healing rituals. The tribes filed a suit Monday night challenging Trump’s action.
A coalition of environment groups filed the first of several expected lawsuits challenging Trump’s move on Grand Staircase-Escalante, established by Bill Clinton when he was president.
The groups say Trump’s decision endangers a “Dinosaur Shangri-la” full of fossils. Some dinosaur fossils sit on a plateau that is home to one of the country’s largest known coal reserves, which could now be open to mining.
McCombs reported from Salt Lake City. Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.
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