American Treasure at Risk: How Bears Ears National Monument Stacks up to U.S. National Parks

The "Moonhouse" in McLoyd Canyon, near Blanding, Utah, is shown during former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell's tour, July 2016.

Tucked in the southeast corner of Utah is an American treasure that, in many ways, rivals the most outstanding national parks in the United States. Bears Ears National Monument—designated by President Barack Obama in December 2016—is a stunning landscape that many Native American tribes recognize as sacred. Archaeological traces—including ancient cliff dwellings, rock art, and ceremonial sites—provide an extraordinary record of our nation’s cultural heritage.

But a new analysis by the Center for American Progress and Conservation Science Partners, or CSP, finds that Bears Ears National Monument is also one of the most wild and scenic places in the West, on par with some of the country’s most iconic national parks.

Unfortunately, it faces an existential threat from the Trump administration. The governor of Utah, along with some of the state’s members of Congress, have been lobbying the new administration to revoke Bears Ears’ national monument status. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke promised to visit the monument to “talk to people on the ground” and “make a recommendation to the president” on the actions he should take. Eliminating an existing national monument has never been attempted and is not only highly controversial but also illegal.

Removing protections for Bears Ears would put the area’s incredible antiquities at risk of looting and destruction and would leave the environment vulnerable to oil, gas, and mineral development. With its conservation significance among the ranks of our national parks, Bears Ears deserves to be kept in the public’s hands and protected for future generations.

A monument with national park qualifications

Bears Ears National Monument is one of the wildest and most ecologically valuable places in the West. In fact, the CAP and CSP analysis found that Bears Ears is in the top 10 percent of similarly sized places in the West for ecological intactness and connectivity, two factors considered essential for biodiversity and landscape-level conservation. It’s also in the top 4 percent of places in terms of night sky darkness, meaning that it has some of the lowest light pollution—or levels of artificial light—in the western United States. The area also scored well for biodiversity—particularly for its concentration of rare and irreplaceable species. Bears Ears is home to at least 18 species listed under the Endangered Species Act, including the California condor, the Mexican spotted owl, and the greenback cutthroat trout.

The analysis finds that Bears Ears is one of the best landscapes in the West for preserving environmental assets and that the monument is key to protecting ecological functions and sensitive habitat in the region.

Bears Ears holds its own as a national treasure even when compared with some of the nation’s most iconic national parks. The analysis compared the conservation indicators used to assess Bears Ears to those of seven national parks: Arches; Canyonlands; Glacier; Grand Canyon; Rocky Mountain; Yellowstone; and Yosemite. It found that not only is Bears Ears’ ecological significance comparable to that of most of these parks but also that it exceeded the parks in numerous categories.

Bears Ear’s score for night sky darkness, an indicator of how remote and scenic a place is, is higher than any of the national parks studied—including Yosemite, a place Teddy Roosevelt described as “far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.” Similarly, Bears Ears tied in the 91st percentile for ecological connectivity with both Utah national parks included in the study—Arches and Canyonlands. Bears Ears also scored high in its diversity of mammal and reptile wildlife, suggesting that it may be more important for protecting at-risk wildlife than several of our national parks.

With land in the west disappearing to development at the rate of a football field every 2.5 minutes, continuing to protect particularly special places such as Bears Ears is critical to keeping the West wild for recreation, conservation, and wildlife.

Why special interests want Bears Ears gone

With Bears Ears’ superior status for conservation and unprecedented tribal support, the motivation of monument opponents’ to recall its protected status deserves greater scrutiny.

On the surface, opponents of the monument claim the designation is an example of “federal overreach,” but the CAP and CSP analysis finds that what’s below the monument’s surface might hold the real reason. When compared with similarly sized landscapes in the West, Bears Ears scored in the 69th percentile for mineral resources—primarily uranium—and in the 54th percentile for oil and gas. Without protection, Bears Ears’ vulnerability to destructive mining and oil and gas development is high.

If not for the bold steps that protected national parks for future generations, even the Grand Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, or Yosemite may have been sold to special interests. Mining prospectors and others opposed protecting the Grand Canyon when it was first designated a national monument in 1908; today, uranium mining occurs just miles from the Grand Canyon and pollutes the water within the national park. And before Canyonlands became a national park in 1964, the oil industry, along with Utah Gov. George Clyde (R) and Sen. Wallace Bennett (R), opposed its protection for fear that it would harm mineral and oil extraction. Today, there are 950 mining claims within five miles of the boundaries of Canyonlands and Arches national parks. Similarly, 120 mining claims can be found within five miles of Yosemite.

Conclusion

The confluence of Bears Ears’ superior ecological status and wealth of uranium and other natural deposits makes its protection as a national monument even more critical. Efforts by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, President Donald Trump,  and Utah politicians to get rid of protections for the area should be seen for what they are: a sell-out of our national heritage to special interests.

Bears Ears National Monument is among the ranks of some of the country’s most iconic national parks and is deserving of the same esteem and protection as Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon. Secretary Zinke should appreciate what his idol Teddy Roosevelt said of these places: “our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”

Methodology

To determine the ecological importance of Bears Ears National Monument, CAP and CSP mapped and summarized 10 landscape-level indicators of resilience to climate change; ecological connectivity; and intactness, biodiversity, and remoteness. Publicly available spatial data and published methods of analysis were used to create indicator maps across 11 Western states to compare Bears Ears National Monument with equivalently sized areas throughout the West. The same was done with each of seven national parks. A mixture of iconic Western national parks known for their ecological importance and Utah national parks were selected for comparison. We also assessed Bears Ears for two threat indicators: mineral resource potential and oil and gas resource potential.

CAP and CSP determined the values of each of the indicators relative to the larger landscape using a simple scoring system based on percentile ranks. Specifically, the mean value of each indicator within Bears Ears National Monument was compared with the distribution of means of a large random sample of 1,000 areas across the 11 Western states, including all jurisdictions. The size of the random samples was equivalent to the size of the monument. We did the same for the seven national parks. Scores on indicators ranged from 0 to 100. For example, a score of 98 for a given indicator signified that the mean value of that indicator in the monument was greater than or equal to 98 percent of the equivalently sized random samples. Scores of 50 or higher suggested a relatively important indicator.

A more detailed description of methods and data can be found here.

Jenny Rowland is the Research and Advocacy Manager for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.

The author would like to thank Kate Kelly, Nicole Gentile, Meghan Miller, Jason Fernandes, and Chester Hawkins for their contributions to this column.