DENVER – The Trump administration took aim Wednesday at National Monuments designated in the past two decades, saying states should be protected from federal land grabs.
An executive order signed by President Donald Trump calls for review of the use of the 1906 Antiquities Act by the past three administrations to create protected public lands, including Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and Canyons of the Ancients in Montezuma County.
The act originated under President Theodore Roosevelt, who approved it and Mesa Verde National Park’s creation as a means of protecting historically significant sites.
Trump said the order is an attempt to “end another egregious abuse of federal power and to give that power back to the states and to the people where it belongs.”
The President argues that the use of the Antiquities Act takes the power from states to use their land as they see fit, such as developing it for resource extraction.
The review will target monuments designated in the last 21 years that are larger than 100,000 acres, according to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
“Somewhere along the way the Act has become a tool of political advocacy rather than public interest,” Zinke said ahead of the signing. “And it’s easy to see why designations in some cases are viewed negatively by those local communities that are impacted the most.”
The only monument in Colorado that would fit that criteria would be Canyons of the Ancients.
Danyelle Leentjes, administrative director of the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association, said while that would leave her site untouched, the order is troubling because Canyon of the Ancients is a sister site that preserves ancestral Puebloan ruins.
“Our stance will always be to preserve and protect not just Chimney Rock, but other archaeological sites,” Leentjes said.
The designation in December of the Bears Ears National Monument brought criticism from Utah Republicans, who have asked Trump to reverse the designation. The 1.3 million acres of land designated is sacred to Native Americans and home to tens of thousands of archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings.
Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance, said the signing of the order cements the Trump administration’s status of being outside of the norm.
“This is pretty clearly another indication they don’t believe in ecological science or cultural resource protection,” Pearson said.
He added that his organization will insist that any review process be open and transparent, with opportunities for the communities near these monuments, who benefit economically, to weigh in.
Lisa Bryant, a spokeswoman for the BLM’s Canyon Country district that includes Bears Ears, said they are awaiting further direction on the executive order to review monuments. She said visitation to the area has increased the last few years, and has increased since the Bears Ears monument was declared in December.
“Right now our primary focus is visitor information and safety,” Bryant said. “Bears Ears is a rugged and remote landscape and we want to inform visitors that it is not a developed park, that they need to be prepared.”
The Bears Ears National Monument is the first of its kind that will be co-managed by a Native American commission representing five regional five tribes. Utah BLM officials recently met with the commission to determine where to best direct a wave of new visitors to ensure safety and protection of cultural resources.
The economic impact of public lands on nearby “gateway communities” has been a talking point for environmentalist when there is dispute over the best use of the lands for quite some time. There also is evidence that the designation of a site as a monument increases the economic impact.
Locally, the Chimney Rock National Monument conducted a study on its impact on Archuleta and La Plata counties over two years, Leentjes said. The study said there was $1.7 million annual economic growth since it was named a monument in 2012.
A study of Montezuma County concluded by Headwaters Economics in 2011 showed a 5 percent growth in population, 10 percent growth in jobs, and 15 percent growth in net income between 2000, when Canyon of the Ancients was designated, and 2008.
On a national level, the National Park Service, which oversees most national monuments, boasted $18.4 billion in visitor spending and an overall $34.9 billion economic output in 2016, $722 million of which was in Colorado.
The Park Service impact makes up only a fraction of the larger outdoor recreation industry that relies heavily on America’s public lands, and is reported to account for $877 billion in consumer spending and credited with 7.6 million jobs in 2016, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
“The President’s action is an affront to our communities and tribes that have spent years working to protect areas of cultural and historic significance,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, said in a release.
Bennet added that he will continue to defend the designation of national monuments in Colorado.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, sent a vague tweet, which appears to be in opposition of the order.
“In Colorado we respect & value public lands. As a champion of the outdoors, I will continue to protect the public lands in our state,” the tweet said.
Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colorado, sent out a statement showing his support for the executive order.
“I am a firm believer that public lands designations should be driven by local communities and move through the legislative process,” Tipton said.
Tipton added that he felt the Antiquities Act has been used in the past to “designate massive parcels of land, without input from the individuals who would be most affected by the designation or Congress.”
In the state Legislature, Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, who championed a bill last year designating the third Saturday in May as “Public Lands Day,” said this order felt different than the others Trump has signed.
“Gut reaction is it’s pretty scary. I mean these monuments are the engines of the economy of our small communities and they contribute greatly to our way of life,” Donovan said.
Rather than progressing the nation, she said the order was a step backward that did not represent Colorado values.
“We did pass a Public Lands Day just last year and at no part of that public lands discussion was ‘man we should probably minimize the size of some of our monuments,’” she said.
Donovan acknowledged that little can be done by the state Legislature, especially since the session has a mere two weeks remaining. But she urged concerned Coloradans to reach out to their congressional delegation.
Pearson said the SJCA was involved in the process of getting Canyons of the Ancients designated as a national monument in 2000 and would again go to bat for the region.
“We’re ready to gear up and fight that fight again,” Pearson said.
Marietta Eaton, manager of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, said the review is at the Washington D.C. office level for now. She said the monument status and budget improved protection for natural resources and fragile Native American cultural sites.
“It improved our ability to protect these treasures and educate the public on the stewardship ethic,” Eaton said. “We’re going to continue to manage as we have been and encourage the public to discover for themselves what the monument has to offer.”
The monument has a staff of 11, including rangers and archaeologists, and has a 2017 operating budget of $1.8 million. In 2016, monument headquarters at the Anasazi Heritage Center Museum near Dolores saw 26,000 visitors. In the same year, an estimated 43,000 people visited the 176,000-acre monument, with one third of those visiting the popular Sand Canyon trail system.
The Associated Press and The Journal reporter Jim Mimiaga contributed to this report.