After Bears Ears, no one's public lands are safe

Bears Ears National Monument

The 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.

President Trump has public lands in the cross-hairs. On Dec. 4, he pulled the trigger, gutting two national monuments in Southern Utah.

Washington should heed the warning: A watershed confrontation for states rights, tribes and environmental interests could happen here, too.

The president’s executive order initiated the largest reduction of protected land since Europeans colonized the continent. He opened Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to mining and unleashed an attack on Native sovereignty by reducing Bears Ears National Monument, the first monument proposed and co-managed by tribes.

As thousands rallied in Salt Lake City to protest the GOP’s monumental mistake, reverberations of the protest made it to the Northwest. Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz called Trump’s reduction of national monuments “unlawful” and a threat to American “culture, history, and outdoor heritage.”

Western public lands are at the center of the American identity and economy. Outdoor recreation is a fast-growing and powerful economic engine, contributing 7.6 million jobs and $887 billion — which is why outdoor companies including Seattle’s REI Co-Op have joined the tribes suing President Trump over his shrinkage of a key destination for adventure.

Like many Washingtonians afflicted by the Big Dark, I have sought seasonal refuge in the sun-drenched mesas of the Southwest. I revel in the public lands that draw people from near and far, considering Red Rock Country my second home.

“Bears Ears has that rare and arresting quality of deafening silence,” mused the monument proclamation. It is the kind of silence so rare, so inhabited by the momentous evidence of many cultures, that I space out in traffic on the Alaskan Way Viaduct imagining myself there again, bewitched by the wing-beats of a raven a quarter mile away.

“What next?” asked Senator Maria Cantwell on Twitter. “Drilling on Mt. Rainier or in Grand Canyon?”

The plunder of these sacred lands is unprecedented. Except, of course, when you take the long view of history: All public lands are stolen lands, like the rest of occupied Indigenous territory we think of as the United States.

Still, 2.8 million Americans wrote to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as he investigated national monuments created under the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906. A whopping 98 percent of the letters he received supported keeping existing boundaries, according to analysis by the Center for Western Priorities. Our protected lands tell us who we are — even when it’s not pretty.

Though Zinke spared Washington’s Hanford Reach National Monument from executive review, the Evergreen State is not immune to the Land-Grabber-in-Chief. Local land managers are already hit hard by conservatives’ “starve the beast” strategy, in which federal and state budgets suffer from massive cuts, unfilled staff positions and resource deprivation. We must reform funding for public lands before it’s too late.

Each time I see Uncle Sam bellowing anti-government rhetoric on a billboard overlooking I-5 in Chehalis, I see parallels to statements from the Bundys before the Oregon standoff, or Phil Lyman, a rural county commissioner in Utah who illegally rode his ATV over archeology sites in protest of federal protections. Economic and cultural divides are far greater than liberals on the west side of the state care to admit.

Recent tensions over Puget Sound Energy’s liquified natural gas facility in Tacoma, the Atlantic salmon pen break at Cypress Island, or the proposed Longview coal export terminal are potential catalysts for catastrophe.

The gutting of Utah’s monuments is a targeted assault on Native sovereignty and our climate, with national implications. Myopic efforts to reduce Bears Ears belie a monumental disrespect for Native tribes who proposed the monument and call the area sacred. Utah’s largest coal deposits were kept in the ground by the protection of Grand Staircase Escalante. Though tribes and environmental groups are expected to win legal challenges filed on Monday, we don’t have time to waste.

Here in Washington, just like in Utah, we need to get ready. Meet your neighbors, dig your hands in the earth, voice your opinions freely and often. Community makes us stronger. Let’s decide together what to do with our common ground — Washington's public lands and waters — before someone comes to take it away.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Claire Martini

Claire Martini

Claire S. Martini advocates for urban mobility and sustainable cities. She currently works as a policy manager with Cascade Bicycle Club.