Patagonia, Native Americans, poised to sue Trump over Bears Ears

When President Trump indicated plans last month to shrink Bears Ears National Monument in Utah by as much as 90 percent, removing protection from areas including Indian Creek, Valley of the Gods, and the confluence of the San Juan and Colorado rivers, the conservationists and Native American tribal leaders who fought to get the monument designated less than one year ago didn’t take the news lying down.

"We feel very much that we have a moral and business obligation to protect these places," says Patagonia’s director of global communications, Corley Kenna. "If the President tries to rescind Bears Ears we'll take every step, including legal action, to see that these places are protected. We're prepared to do that."

Bears Ears currently permits hunting, fishing, uranium mining, cattle grazing, and myriad recreational activities that contribute to the $887 billion outdoor recreation industry. Photo: Courtesy of Marc Toso/Patagonia

Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.3 million-acre swath of desert anchored by the Bears Ears buttes in the southeastern corner of Utah, contains Native American artifacts and cliff dwellings dating back 3,500 years and, in more recent generations, has become an important destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

Home to iconic mountain bike trails, climbing routes including the crack-climbing mecca of Indian Creek, and rafting tours on the San Juan River, the region holds immense value for adventure athletes as well as tribal groups who have held it sacred for millennia.

The recommendation to rescind protections on Bears Ears comes from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose private memo to Trump outlining his rationale was leaked to the Washington Post in September.

The memo comes after a four-month period in which all 27 national monuments created after 1996 and comprising over 100,000 acres were reviewed for possible alteration – an unprecedented move by the executive branch that effectively sought to challenge designations made by former presidents under the Antiquities Act.

In his memo, Zinke justifies the recommendation by saying that public opinion is divided, that monuments hurt local economies, and that traditional uses like hunting and extraction are oppressed by designating the area as a monument.

Data shows, however, that 99.2 percent of the 2.8 million individuals who submitted comments favor preserving the monuments, according to Key-Log Economics. And a study by Headwaters Economics concluded that protected lands yield a positive impact on jobs and incomes.

It’s 1.3 million-acre swath of desert anchored by the Bears Ears buttes in the southeastern corner of Utah. Photo: Courtesy of Marc Toso/Patagonia

Bears Ears currently permits hunting, fishing, uranium mining, cattle grazing, and myriad recreational activities that contribute to the $887 billion outdoor recreation industry.

Zinke’s memo also states that any argument to preserve national monuments on the basis that it will prevent the sale or transfer of public lands is “false and has no basis in fact.”

This statement appears to be at odds with the GOP-sponsored Federal Land Freedom Act, which was introduced to Congress less than two months ago and seeks to authorize any “state with an established oil and gas leasing program to take responsibility from the federal government for leasing and regulating the exploration and development of oil, gas, and other forms of energy on federal land in the state.”

“Recent polling shows that 67 percent of Americans fall on the side of protecting public lands over increasing oil and gas development,” contends Kenna.

Stakeholders in the opposition of shrinking Bears Ears include conservationists as well as 30 Native American tribes, five of whom set aside generations-old differences to form the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in 2015.

Bears Ears National Monument. Photo: Courtesy of Josh Ewing/Patagonia

“The recommendations to eliminate protections are very troubling to our tribal nations who worked for decades to protect these sacred lands,” says Carleton Bowekaty, co-chair of the Bears Ears Commission of Tribes. “The proposed reduction in size would leave thousands of sites more vulnerable to vandalism, compromise the integrity of the landscape as a whole, and disrespect the unified voices of tribal nations that have consistently called for Bears Ears to be protected.”

“We are prepared to challenge immediately whatever official action is taken to modify the monument or restructure any aspect of that,” Ethel Branch, attorney general of the Navajo Nation told Reuters.

Until President Trump actually takes any concrete action, like officially redrawing the boundaries of the monument, there is no basis for a lawsuit from Patagonia, the Navajo Nation, or any other group that opposes the proposed changes.

If and when he does assert such action, however, opponents argue that he would be in violation of the Antiquities Act, the legislation enacted by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 which allows the executive branch to designate national monuments to protect objects of historical, cultural and/or scientific interest.

You can join Patagonia in fighting Secretary Zinke's recommendation to shrink Bears Ears. Photo: Courtesy of Josh Ewing/Patagonia

President Trump has announced plans to visit the Bears Ears area in early December, and an announcement is expected to coincide with that visit.

Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance believes that “if President Trump attacks the Bears Ears National Monument, it will long be viewed as one of the worst acts of injustice committed by a modern president, and one that inevitably will be rectified by a federal court.”

“As Americans, we’re all public land owners,” says Kenna. “This is a uniquely American thing – an American heritage that we have and it’s really important to who we are … it unites us. It’s actually an issue that has support from hardcore Democrats and hardcore Republicans, Liberals and Conservatives, hunters and hikers. As Americans this is something we hold really dear.”

You can join Patagonia in fighting Secretary Zinke’s recommendation to shrink Bears Ears by filling out this form, or you can text DEFEND to 52886 to have the information sent directly to your mobile phone.

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