We all must speak up to protect our national monuments

As state representatives of the Southwest, we are concerned about the future of our national monuments. Right now, both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments are under attack, and the public has just a short window to weigh in.

Both of these monuments are in Utah, but they are vital to us all, as they safeguard our nation’s diverse history and cultural heritage. Our voices are part of the two-thirds of western voters, and 86 percent of Latino voters in the west, who say that reducing these monuments is a bad idea. We are proud to have public lands in our backyard — lands that belong to all of us.

These ancient treasures hold sacred Native American sites, unique fossils, endangered wildlife, geological wonders, and much more. They are also pillars of local and state economies, as visitors travel far and wide to visit these destinations. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, Utah’s outdoor recreation economy is worth $12.3 billion, including 110,000 jobs — more than double the amount of mining and energy jobs in the state combined.

Getting rid of protections opens these lands up to mining and drilling, and exposes them to off-road vehicle use that would cause permanent losses.

Already the administration has attempted to drastically reduce both of these monuments, potentially opening up nearly half of Grand Staircase to destructive practices; and diminishing the protected area of Bears Ears by a whopping 85 percent. There are five lawsuits pending in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. waiting to rule on whether or not any of this is even legal, as the Antiquities Act only gives a President the authority to create – not to eliminate or significantly diminish – national monuments.

Right now the public can provide input on management plans proposed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for the newly reduced monuments. (Bears Ears public comment period is open until Nov. 15 here; and Grand Staircase until Nov. 30 here.) But shouldn’t we wait for the pending lawsuits to be decided before we plow ahead with management plans? Shouldn’t we wait to find out if, in fact, we can leave current, more expansive protections in place before we rush toward permanent destruction of these historic gems? 

We don’t need to destroy sacred areas for energy development. Oil and gas companies are sitting on over 19 million acres of unused public land leases, while over 7,500 approved drilling permits on U.S. public lands are undrilled and idled. Conserving and protecting special places is not “locking up” the land, rather it is managing it for the greater good, including future generations.

Bears Ears alone contains over 100,000 archeological sites. The original proposal to protect these 1.9 million acres was developed by a coalition of five sovereign tribal governments (Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute and Zuni); and was supported by 270 tribal nations across the U.S. as well as the majority of people living in Utah. The original Monument offered protection from artifact theft; promoted respect for graves and other sacred sites; and gave Native American tribes a voice in the management of these ancestral lands.

At Grand Staircase-Escalante, a marvel in the making for at least 50 million years, new species of dinosaurs are discovered on a regular basis. In the plan that the BLM is currently accepting public comments for, fossils would be available for “casual collection” and the abundance of potential new discoveries will quickly vanish.

We are proud to follow in the footsteps of other leaders who have spoken out against this reckless process. Last month Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz._ joined Rep. Michele Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) in sending letters to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed by 61 of their House colleagues urging him to stop considering management plans of the reduced monuments until the legal cases have been decided. At a minimum, there should be at least one plan that addresses how to manage the monuments if the courts rule that the administration is, in fact, acting illegally. 

Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments are not only in peril because of the president’s attempts to drastically reduce both of these monuments, but now also from the BLM’s plans for managing them. The agency should work with interested tribes to create an interim plan to protect these resources while the validity of the president’s boundary modifications is decided by the courts. We urge the public to weigh in and protect the rich history of those who came before us, before it is lost forever.

Cardenas, Chavez-Houck and Denis are Advisory Board Members of Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO).