This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Bears Ears National Monument critics routinely point to the sprawling reach of President Barack Obama's proclamation, taking in the swath of canyon country from the San Juan River north to Indian Creek, as the monument's chief defect.
Utah's legislative leaders and members of Congress say the 1.3 million-acre designation and the 1.7 million acres set aside by President Bill Clinton for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are definitive evidence that the presidents "abused" the Antiquities Act, arguing that monument designations today are 47 times larger than they were a century ago.
"These colossal abuses have soured the appetite for national monument designations, making the Antiquities Act synonymous with overreach rather than a tool to be celebrated for protecting our national heritage," Utah's congressional delegation wrote Thursday in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, urging the revocation of Obama's Bears Ears designation.
"Restoring the legitimacy of Antiquities Act authority in the eyes of the public requires a responsible and collaborative approach to monument designations," they continued, "an approach that takes into account the needs of local communities and restores trust between states and the federal government."
But to drive that point, monument critics have relied on misleading numbers to back their claim that large monuments fall outside the norm of the 1906 statute, which gave presidents broad authority to set aside public land to protect objects of scientific interest.
A comparison of monument designations by Obama and President Theodore Roosevelt show that recent proclamations, on average, are not that much larger than those a century ago, when Congress passed the Antiquities Act, which Roosevelt invoked with great zeal to safeguard the nation's natural heritage from looters, miners and loggers who were then misappropriating the West's resources.
"We've had landscape-scale monuments since at least 1908, with the Grand Canyon [an 818,000-acre monument designated by Roosevelt]," said University of Utah law professor John Ruple. "Congress has had 109 years to clarify that language if they felt landscape-scale monuments were inappropriate. They haven't. That has to tell us something.
"There are times and places when small is appropriate," Ruple added, "and there is a time and place where you need a landscape scale to protect those objects."
Utah's Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, along with 25 other large monuments designated since 1996, are liable to be shrunk or even revoked after Zinke's review.
Monument opponents are convinced that monuments larger than 5,000 acres are not what Congress envisioned when it passed the act, which required monuments to be "confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and maintenance of the objects to be protected."
"The whole reason [Grand Staircase] was created was to get rid of that Kaiparowits coal project. It had nothing to do with trying to protect iconic places," said Utah Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab. So many protections exist today on federal land that Antiquities Act designations are no longer needed, he argued.
To back their calls for shrinking Utah's massive monuments, Noel and other leaders say modern monument designations, on average, dwarf those of prior generations.
For example, a "fact sheet" issued by Zinke's office pegged the average size of monuments designated in the early 1900s at 422 acres, a number that cannot be squared with Roosevelt's early designations that included Petrified Forest and Chaco Canyon, 60,776 and 20,629 acres, respectively.
A recent Utah legislative resolution calling on President Donald Trump to rescind Bears Ears, makes a similarly suspect claim: "Newly designated monuments averaged 15,573 acres in 1906 when the Antiquities Act was signed into law, but, in the year 2016, have averaged 739,305 acres," states HCR11, sponsored by House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.
It's not clear how those averages were calculated, but the numbers reflect cherry-picked data. A more reliable comparison would examine all designations under the first Roosevelt and Obama, which paints a much different picture.
The average size of Roosevelt's 18 monuments exceeded 85,000 acres; Obama's 31 nonmarine designations averaged 185,311 acres. That amounts to a size ratio of around 2.3-to-1 not the 47-to-1 evoked by Utah lawmakers.
Early monument blockbusters included Alaska's Glacier Bay, designated by Calvin Coolidge in 1925 (1 million acres), and California's Death Valley, designated by Herbert Hoover in 1933 (1.6 million acres). From the beginning, Roosevelt took an expansive approach toward preserving antiquities to include the landscapes that harbored them. Yet one-third of Roosevelt's designation focused on cultural artifacts; the majority protected geological wonders, such as Natural Bridges in the heart of what is now the Bears Ears.
Roosevelt's two largest monuments, Grand Canyon and Mount Olympus (615,000 acres) generated fierce opposition. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1920 affirmed the Grand Canyon designation, while one of Roosevelt's successors shrank Olympus.
President Woodrow Wilson halved that monument as the nation was preparing to enter World War I a time when the U.S. needed wood to build ships, planes and railroads and there was broad support for freeing up the monument's timber. Wilson's move was never legally challenged. Congress later vindicated Roosevelt's original designation by enlarging the monument and elevating it to national park status.
Today, Grand Canyon and Olympus are considered jewels in the national park system, as are Zion, Teton, Arches, Mesa Verde, Bandelier, Dinosaur, Glacier Bay, Death Valley and Capitol Reef, all of which were also set aside or expanded under the Antiquities Act.
But such designations are seen as undemocratic because they are almost always made against the wishes of nearby residents and their elected representatives. According to Noel, large monuments unnecessarily disrupt rural communities, such as Utah's San Juan County, because they impose rules that thwart logging, mining, drilling and other uses of the land that support traditional economies.
"When you create 5,000 square miles of monuments, it impacts everything we do," said the Kanab rancher. "The constraints that are put on by a monument don't allow for some of the things I think are no-brainers. Why should we limit group sizes to 12 people? ... Why do we have to close down existing roads that have been there for 100 years and people have been using for access? How does that help people from the Wasatch Front that want to come down for a week, get out there in a tent and enjoy the dark skies?"