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Traveler's View: If Secretary Zinke Was An Anthropologist, Would Bears Ears National Monument Be Safe?


Understanding Interior Secretary Zinke's love for the outdoors makes it easy to understand why he doesn't want Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument shrunk/DOI

When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke declared Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho safe from a recommendation that it be downsized, he flashed his geology chops, which raises an intriguing question: Were his educational background in anthropology or ethnology, would Bears Ears National Monument in Utah be safe as well?

It's hard to summarily dispense with that question, or other questions about his decision-making, when it comes to suggesting to President Trump whether this monument should be kept intact, or that monument should be reduced in size, or if another should be abolished (something the president likely couldn't do without congressional support).

The Interior secretary likes to say he's a "Theodore Roosevelt conservationist," which conjures a hardy image of T.R. on the hunt or tramping about Yosemite with John Muir, the two talking outdoors before a flickering campfire under a starry sky. Mr. Zinke is from Big Sky Country, Montana, loves to fish and hunt, and even rode a horse to work on his first day at Interior.

So, when historian Douglas Brinkley told Grist magazine earlier this year that, in Roosevelt's day, "it was in vogue for some Western Republicans to call themselves conservationists. ... It meant that you enjoyed the strenuous life, or, as Roosevelt called it, 'the outdoor life,'" it's not hard to make a connection between Zinke and Roosevelt. And it's understandable, recognizing that connection, to see why the secretary, after spending a day canoeing in piny Kathadin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine, came away so impressed with the forested landscape.

"Today, we saw a lot of gorgeous woods and waterways, and I’m very grateful to the family for their generosity,” said Secretary Zinke at the end of the day at Katahin Woods and Waters last month. “We all share the same goals of conserving the land and prioritizing access for hunting, fishing, recreation, and other traditional uses of the land."

After exploring Craters of the Moon, Secretary Zinke noted his geology background when declaring it safe from a negative recommendation.

“As a former geologist, I realize Craters of the Moon is a living timeline of the geologic history of our land on the Great Rift. Whether it’s hiking up the alien-like lava flows along the Spatter Cones or just driving through the scenic loop, there’s a lot to see and learn at this historic location," he said this past week.

Secretary Zinke also spared Hanford Reach National Monument in Washington state, noting that "(S)portsmen and women from all over the country go to Hanford Reach for some of the best fishing and bird hunting around. It’s also home to some of the most well-preserved remnants of human history in the area.”

Would the Interior secretary hold Bears Ears National Monument in greater esteem were he an anthropologist?/BLM

But after touring Bears Ears in southeastern Utah, the secretary quickly came to the conclusion that, at 1.3 million acres, it was unnecessarily large.

“There is no doubt that there are historic and prehistoric structures and other objects of scientific interest within the Bears Ears monument. These items and objects can be identified, segregated, and reasonably separated," he said during a half-hour conference call. “Certainly, rescinding the monument was an option, but looking at it, there are some antiquities within the monument that I think deserve to be protected."

Now, perhaps his view would have been different had he some Native American blood in his family, studied anthropology, or if Bears Ears' hunting and fishing was on par with that at Hanford Reach.

To the five sovereign Native nations represented by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, the monument can't be sliced into parcels without desecrating the whole.

“For us, Bears Ears is a homeland. It always has been and still is," the coalition said after the secretary voiced his opinion of the monument. "The radical idea of breaking up Bears Ears National Monument is a slap in the face to the members of our tribes and an affront to Indian people all across the country. Any attempt to eliminate or reduce the boundaries of this monument would be wrong on every count. Such action would be illegal, beyond the reach of presidential authority.

“The Bears Ears region is not a series of isolated objects, but the object itself, a connected, living landscape, where the place, not a collection of items, must be protected. You cannot reduce the size without harming the whole. Bears Ears is too precious a place, and our cultures and values too dignified and worthy, to backtrack on the promises made in the Presidential Proclamation."

The curious decision-making so far didn't escape Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, when Mr. Zinke announced his position on Craters of the Moon and Hanford Reach.

“Secretary Zinke said in a statement today that '… not all monuments are the same.' Indeed, they are not," said Ms. Pierno. "And that’s exactly why each was created, and why each is deserving of protection. And why nearly 3 million Americans have again spoken up to protect them.

"To question these sites is to dishonor all that makes this country so special. Some have wild rivers and habitat for wildlife, some are sacred lands, and some protect incredible canyons. We are all waiting for Secretary Zinke to move beyond this arbitrary process and start doing the work he is charged with, and that’s protecting and preserving America’s national monuments and our national park sites, not questioning their value.”

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Excellent piece.  One of the abiding (and by now widely recognized) problems with colonialism is its treatment of artifacts as objects rather than as inseparable parts of a complex network of signification.  Turning an artifact into what it isn't (an object) literally destroys its significance.  I hope Zinke reads this Traveler's View.

Even leaving aside whether objects should be viewed  "as inseparable parts of a complex network of signification," there are simply too many sites in the Bears Ears to even think about whether "items and objects can be identified, segregated, and reasonably separated." That's a fool's errand.

I wasn't sure where this was, but when I checked a map I realized that I passed through the area when visiting the Needles District in Canyonlands NP.

I'm not quite sure how the Secretary of the Interior has full authority on this.  Of course there's the issue as to whether a President had the authority to reduce a national monument without the consent of Congress.  However, this is partly on Forest Service land, and I'm not sure how he has authority over such land.

However, this is partly on Forest Service land, and I'm not sure how he has authority over such land.

The Secretary of the Interior does not have the authority to alter a national monument. He is only charged by the President with studying and making recommendations. The final decision and any changes must be made by the President. And, of course, he has authority over the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture, as well as over the Department of the Interior.

Is it because Bears' Ears is a culturally important site that Trump wants Zinke to cut it up hense destrying it's significance or is it because Trump wants to access the fossil fuel beneath it ? Either way not keeping it intact would be a crime !


Michael Kellett on July 18, 2017 - 1:32pm.

The Secretary of the Interior does not have the authority to alter a national monument. He is only charged by the President with studying and making recommendations. The final decision and any changes must be made by the President. And, of course, he has authority over the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture, as well as over the Department of the Interior.

I get that the ultimate authority rests with the President, but wonder why the Secretary of the Interior is making decisions on some land that his department doesn't control.

On top of that, there's plenty of legal opinion that only Congress has the authority to reverse a national monument designation.  There's some controversy over whether or President has the legal authority to reduce a national monument's boundaries.  It has been done, but I've heard it hasn't been tested in the courts.  Here's an interesting Congressional Research Service report:


It's disengenuous to suggest that the current boundaries of Bears Ears NM represent some kind of integral unit of Native American landscape. There are tens of thousands of archeological sites both within and without the boundaries of the monument, and the Anasazi and later native inhabitants moved freely throughout the Four Corners region. Archeological sites are already protected under Federal law with or without the monument designation and access to the most sensitive sites at Cedar Mesa is monitored and partially restricted. It's unclear to me how the monument designation honors the "cultures and values" of Native Americans (who are not monolithic in their thinking). 

The real issue here is the Presidential power grab that began with the declaration of Grand Staircase-Escalante NM back in '96 and continued under Obama. If I lived in a state where 65% of the land could be closed to commerical use by the arbitrary proclamation of the President, I'd be mad, too.

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