Just a few days after Christmas, local landowners in the West got coal in their stockings when the Obama Administration declared two new monument designations - 1.35 million acres at Bears Ears in Utah and 350,000 acres at Gold Butte in Nevada. Both designations were made “unilaterally and despite overwhelming local opposition,” the Public Lands Council (PLC) said.
The designations of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada make it the 29th time President Obama has used his executive power under the Antiquities Act, more than any other president before him.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “As we move forward with planning for monument implementation, the deep knowledge of the tribal community as well as ranchers, recreationists, archeologists and local community citizens will be heard.”
In July, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and environment Robert Bonnie and other senior Administration officials visited Bears Ears along with staff from Gov. Herbert’s office and Utah congressional delegation staff, and attended a public meeting where the majority of an overflow crowd encouraged permanent protection for this iconic landscape, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, those opposed to the designation tell a different story. PLC president and Utah rancher Dave Eliason criticized the outgoing Administration for both its disregard for local input and the manner in which these latest designations were executed.
“Designating a monument in this manner – under the cloak of darkness and without even the decency of notifying the local communities, the states or the congressional delegations of Utah or Nevada – speaks volumes about the disregard this Administration has for local input,” Eliason said. “If the Administration was proud of this action, they would have touted it proudly yesterday when the designation was made. Instead, the Administration hid out while no one impacted by this monument was given the courtesy of a simple phone call until a full day after the papers were signed."
In a statement from USDA regarding the announcement, the agency said the area’s tradition of ranching, which dates back to the late 1800s, will continue. Grazing permits and leases will continue to be issued by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service.
However, in a letter to the new Administration, PLC and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. (NCBA) said ranchers and other multiple-use interests in the West have been “subjected to an almost wholesale shift in federal land management policy under the Obama administration.”
Eliason said, “While the Bureau of Land Management has a clear directive to manage BLM lands for multiple use and sustained yield, instead focus has shifted toward ‘conservation’ without responsible management.”
“Ranchers that operate on federal lands protect water sources used by livestock and wildlife, maintain fence lines, reduce spread of invasive weeds like cheatgrass and medusahead, and decrease the fuel loads that lead to catastrophic wildfire,” said Tracy Brunner, NCBA president. “Despite these contributions, beneficiaries of our work continue to attack responsible grazing, essentially biting the hand that feeds them. It is time these groups – whether they be wildlife advocates, environmental organizations, or recreational interests like hikers and sportsmen – put politics aside and appreciate the hard work required to provide them with the quality outdoor experiences they all cherish.”
PLC, NCBA, the American Sheep Industry Assn. and the Association of National Grasslands as well as the associated western affiliates, urged the incoming Trump Administration to reevaluate the flawed policies driven by radical special-interest groups and take advantage of the tremendous benefits and opportunities available through restoration and enhancement of responsible grazing on federal lands.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) called the designation an “egregious abuse of executive power” and criticized the President for caring more about “far-left special interest groups” than those who live in Utah. Hatch said he plans to meet with Interior Secretary nominee Ryan Zinke to discuss the prospects of reversing the designation, and he said that conversation would largely determine his support for Zinke’s confirmation.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes also said the his office is working closely with the governor’s office, federal and state legislators and San Juan County to file a lawsuit challenging “this egregious overreach by the Obama Administration.” Reyes said the case is different from other past challenges by states and counties and “we are confident in our chances of success.”