The Future of Bears Ears

Bear Ears is being offered up for oil, gas, and mining companies, but do they want it? Even if they do, they may not be the land’s most serious threat.

For anyone with a foot in the outdoor community, the announcement of the shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument by the Trump administration was an enormous defeat. The loss of more than 1.15 million acres, 85% of the monument’s area, went against both public opinion and a year-long campaign by the outdoor industry, conservationists, and Native Americans to defend the monument. To make matters worse, the announcement was paired with reductions to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and followed immediately by hints that Cascade-Siskiyou and Gold Butte could be next.

The response has been mixed tragedy and acrimony, an unwilling half-acceptance of a decision that we all knew was coming for months beforehand. Patagonia’s all-black website is emblazoned with the headline “The President Stole Your Land,” while both environmental groups and five Native American tribes have already filed lawsuits challenging Trump’s power under the Antiquities Act. (I’ve written before on why these lawsuits are unlikely to succeed.)

Throughout the year of fighting to preserve the monument’s boundaries as they were originally designated, resource extraction has been the boogeyman looming in wait for the monument to be rescinded. Environmental groups painted the loss of Bears Ears as a catastrophe for climate change efforts, and the image painted by the outdoor community was one of oil rigs splayed out below climbers’ favorite walls.

But as the dust settles, what does the future of Bears Ears actually look like? Will more than a million acres of land be turned over to industrial devastation, or will the land go on as it had in the decades prior to the announcement of Bears Ears National Monument?

Wilderness Areas

Despite Patagonia’s rhetoric, the land removed from the monument wasn’t “stolen” – it has been, and remains, public land in the care of the BLM and USFS. In fact, much of that land did not benefit from being part of the national monument. 46,000 acres are part of the USFS’s Dark Canyon Wilderness, while another 370,000 are part of 9 distinct wilderness study areas managed by the BLM. These lands, together more than one-third of the total removed from the monument, are already at or near the gold standard for conservation and outdoor recreation – wilderness. The status of these lands is not changing without a Congressional decision, which even in the current political environment is highly unlikely (as Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah found out when he attempted to sell off public lands earlier this year).

Oil & Gas Drilling

The remaining land will lose its monument status on February 2, 2018, and President Trump and Interior Secretary Zinke have already promised to offer leases for oil and gas drilling. But will oil companies bite?

The potential lease sale will come at a time when oil prices are at a historic low, and production in the Bears Ears region has never been stellar. Only in the oil heyday of the 1970’s was production in the region viable, and the last well within Bears Ears was discontinued 25 years ago. Add to that the highly rugged terrain of Cedar Mesa, which takes a significant investment to overcome, and the sluggish permitting process of the BLM, and it is likely to be a hard sell to drilling companies that can otherwise look to high production areas in the neighboring San Juan Basin.

Despite this, drilling companies had submitted “Express of Interest” notifications to the BLM for nearly 100,000 acres on the northern and eastern fringes of the monument prior to its designation. These submissions - effectively requests asking the agency to include the land in future lease sales – indicate that drilling companies may be willing to speculate on areas where the terrain is less rugged and geologically contiguous to currently producing wells.

But importantly, even if these leases are offered, purchased, and drilled, they represent only a tiny fraction of the land lost from Bears Ears. Moreover, they lie outside of the monument’s cultural and recreational heartlands (part of the Trump administration’s rationale for removing them from the monument). Short of a new oil and gas boom, drilling on a large scale across the disputed land – in a way that would significantly alter public access, outdoor recreation, and cultural preservation – is unlikely.

Uranium Mining

The Bears Ears region has a long history of uranium mining, with off-and-on production dating back to the turn of the 20th century. However, the current economics of uranium are similar to those of oil and gas – uranium prices are at a historic low. In fact, three mines just outside Bears Ears recently shut down due to low uranium prices.

But the future may be bright for uranium: whereas renewable energy is threatening to further subdue fossil fuel demand, the same trend is anticipated to increase demand for uranium-based nuclear power in countries like China. Which means that companies may invest in bargain-price leases now in order to hold the land if and when uranium prices spike. In fact, the Washington Post reports that uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources lobbied the Trump administration to roll back the monument boundaries.

Uranium mining, if it indeed becomes widespread within the Bears Ears boundaries, could have a significant impact on the land. The most promising uranium mines are deep within the monument, adjacent to several of the land parcels set aside as wilderness and to Natural Bridges National Monument. Developing roads to reach these areas could reshape the area’s wild and remote character as well as enable easier access to the wilderness boundaries (whether that is good or bad is a constant debate in the outdoor community). Furthermore, uranium mining has historically brought with it severe environmental effects on local waterways, which could endanger fishing and water availability for hikers in the area.

Tourism

The biggest threat of all to Bears Ears may be the attention it has received thanks to the monument designation and the ensuing fight between conservationists and the Trump administration. Although no official records of visitation to the monument exists, Friends of Cedar Mesa – the Bluff, UT-based non-profit that has taken on the role of caretaker for the Bears Ears region – estimates that the number of people traveling to Bears Ears has quadrupled since 2015.

While many of those visitors are likely Leave No Trace-minded climbers and hikers, the tremendous increase in tourism has already endangered the monument’s estimated 100,000 archaeological sites as well as the biological soil crust that covers much of the desert Southwest. Vandalism and theft of Native American artifacts are on the rise, so much so that Friends of Cedar Mesa now offers a reward for reporting looters. The organization has also produced a “Visit with Respect” video series that teaches visitors about Leave No Trace ethics as applied to the archaeological heritage of Bears Ears.

What can you do?

Resource extraction is a threat to Bears Ears, but the more immediate, tangible, and likely ongoing threat is the vast increase in visitation to an area that has traditionally been protected by its sheer remoteness. Support Bears Ears by supporting Leave No Trace education and serving as a role model for what enjoying the outdoors with respect looks like. To contribute directly to Leave No Trace efforts in Bears Ears, you can also donate to Friends of Cedar Mesa as they work to build a visitor’s center in the town of Bluff. The center will be aimed at educating visitors about the cultural significance of the area and encouraging visitors to treat the land with the respect it deserves.

Cover photo: Mike Fennell, Valley of the Gods

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Michael GrawExplorer

I'm a landscape and adventure photographer based out of Corvallis, Oregon. Backpacker, triathlete, and skiier - always with a camera in hand. Look for me in the mountains or online @WanderingSolePhotography.