Preserving These Public Lands as National Monuments to Protect the Past, Present and Future of Our Southwestern Ecosystems

The Center for Biological Diversity and our conservation allies have worked for years to protect important ecosystems within the Southwest: the Grand Canyon watershed of the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona, the rocky, desert landscape of Gold Butte in Nevada, and the iconic red-rock country of Utah's greater Canyonlands or Bears Ears ecosystem.

These stunning areas are part of a larger habitat corridor that stretches from southern Utah along the Colorado River in Arizona to southern Nevada. Pronghorn, mountain lion, Kaibab mule deer and bighorn sheep roam these wildlands, which also provide habitat for endangered and endemic species. Ancient human cultures lived within these canyons and mountains as well, leaving behind exceptional archeological and cultural heritage sites still held sacred by the Indian tribes of the region.

But many of this area's public lands have become sacrifice zones for grazing, logging, reckless off-road vehicle use, mining, and oil and gas development. Species that once thrived in grasslands, desert landscapes, old-growth forests and rivers are increasingly being pushed to the brink of extinction by industrial and urban development. Climate-change-induced droughts put additional stress on these habitats and the animals that depend on them. Sacred American Indian lands and many cultural sites remain open to exploitation and destruction.

Fortunately, using his authority under the Antiquities Act, President Barack Obama moved to save many of these precious lands for this and future generations. In December 2016, the administration designated both Bears Ears and Gold Butte National Monuments. Unfortunately, the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument wasn't designated before Obama left office. The Center and our allies will continue our work to protect the Grand Canyon region. 

Trump's order directs the Interior Department to review every monument larger than 100,000 acres that was designated since 1966, including both Bears Ears and Gold Butte. Secretary Zinke's interim recommendation to Trump already calls for shrinking Bears Ears, but details have not been forthcoming. Zinke will make his final recommendations to President Trump for all 27 monuments on August 24, 2017.

Here's where these three arid Southwest landscapes, unprotected or under attack, stand:


Bears Ears National Monument

Bears Ears National Monument. Photo courtesy BLM.

When Interior Secretary Harold Ickes first proposed to protect Utah's canyon country in 1936, he envisioned a 4.5-million-acre swath of red rock desert. Congress finally designated Canyonlands National Park in 1964, by which time political pressure from developers had whittled it down to only 257,000 acres.

Today iconic lands around the park remain a cradle of wildness. Narrow canyons afford refuge for endangered species like the southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo; remote rivers sustain highly endangered fish and feed the mighty Colorado River that provides water to 40 million Americans. Stark geology and sacred American Indian sites reveal deep time.

But the march of industrialization has reached Bears Ears' doorstep. Rampant fossil fuel development, mining and uncontrolled off-road vehicle use are pushing deeper into these remote wildlands, threatening the irretrievable loss of wild nature.

In July 2015 leaders from five tribes — Hopi, Navajo, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain and Pueblo of Zuni — founded the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, united in the effort to protect the Bears Ears cultural landscape. 

After years of advocacy President Barack Obama in December 2016 designated the 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, protecting one of the largest unprotected wild places in America and to give untold gifts to species, ecosystems, rivers and Americans for generations to come.

But Donald Trump's April 2017 executive order, directing the Interior Department to scrutinize recently designated nation monuments, took square aim at Bears Ears and placed the monument first on the chopping block. On June 12 Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — ignoring hundreds of thousands of public comments in support of Bears Ears, along with the wishes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — recommended shrinking the monument.

The administration will make its final recommendation to carve away at the monument in late August, but the many people who fought for the monument will not sit back and watch it be undermined.


Gold Butte National Monument

Carved rock sculpture at Whitney Pockets, Gold Butte, Nevada. Photo courtesy Flickr/Carl Berger.

Northeast of Las Vegas, the 300,000-acre expanse of desert called Gold Butte National Monument is public land that provides vital habitat for rare and endangered species like desert tortoises, kit foxes, burrowing owls and rare native plants.

Faced with climate change, urban sprawl and habitat fragmentation, these species would be on track to disappear from this land if it weren't for the additional protections afforded to it as a recently designated national monument. Gold Butte is a unique, fascinating and fragile combination of wildlands where four ecosystems collide: the Great Basin, Mojave and Sonoran deserts and the Colorado Plateau.

While beloved by locals and visitors for its hiking, birdwatching and hunting opportunities, for the past two decades the Gold Butte ecosystem has faced catastrophic damage from illegal, trespass cattle grazing and the Bureau of Land Management's failure to adequately regulate rampant off-road motorized vehicle use. Working with citizen groups in the area, the Center consistently pushed for greater conservation of Gold Butte and better management for recreation that would provide additional education and interpretation of cultural and historic resources.

The continued protection of Gold Butte National Monument is especially important because of its history as the homeland of many American Indian peoples, including the ancient Fremont and ancestral Puebloan communities, and today the Moapa band of southern Paiutes. These cultures have left a rich treasure trove of rock art and other artifacts. There are also numerous historical sites that document the first European settlers in the area, including Spanish and pioneer mining camps dating back to the 1700s.

Designation of this monument by the Obama administration in December 2016 focused the national spotlight on this underappreciated region and its ecological and cultural values. The monument also stands to stimulate the local economy through tourism and ensure that endangered and threatened species recovery in the area is made a priority.


The Proposed Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument

In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt designated the Grand Canyon a national monument, using his executive power to protect one of America's greatest natural treasures. The president called on Americans to let this great wonder of nature remain as it was. We could only mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness, he said — not improve upon it.

More than 100 years later, much more of the Grand Canyon ecosystem has been protected through the creation of Grand Canyon National Park and the designation of the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. But Roosevelt's grand vision remains unfulfilled as, old-growth logging and legacy impacts from uranium mining continue unabated on public lands just outside the boundaries of these protected spaces.

Thus the Center and others are proposing that another monument be designated: the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument. Along with providing habitat for the endangered Mexican spotted owl and California condor, endemic Kaibab squirrel and majestic northern goshawk, the 1.7 million acres of this proposed monument contain distinctive and unique ecological treasures, including the Kaibab Plateau, with one of the largest southwestern old-growth ponderosa pine forests; House Rock Valley, a remote grassland ecosystem; the Kaibab-Pausaguant Wildlife Corridor, which facilitates migration and survival of large mammals like mule deer and pronghorn; and the life-sustaining waters of Kanab Creek and Grand Canyon's South Rim springs.

Kaibab Ranger District. Photo courtesy Kaibab National Forest.


The watershed is also home to lands of great significance to the Hopi, Zuni, Hualapai, Havasupai and Navajo — and it was historically home to the Clovis, Basketmaker and Puebloan peoples. More than 3,000 ancient archaeological sites have been documented in the region, dating back to 11,000 BCE, and these represent just a fraction of the human historical record of the region. Designation of this area as a monument would not only protect its ancient tribal heritage — it would also support local tribal economies by further spurring tourism.

Despite immense public support for the proposed Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument, President Barack Obama left office in January 2017 without giving Americans a designation.

However, Arizona Representative Raúl Grijalva has ensured that the idea of the monument remains alive in the current congress by introducing a bill that would establish the monument. And now, given the increasing threat of new uranium mining once again beginning in the region, we need a Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument perhaps more than ever.



California condor photo courtesy Flickr Commons/Sasha Vasko