What the Heck Just Happened in Utah?

Photo Credit: Patrick Hendry

On December 4, President Trump, flanked by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, announced his intention to shrink the Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by about 40%.  The former constitutes the largest shrinkage of protected public land in history.  Swirling around this announcement is a great deal of confusion about what exactly the heck just happened.  So, American Hiking members, let me see if I can help clear that up with facts.


True or False?  In a “federal land grab,” Presidents Obama and Clinton stole the land at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante for the federal government.  Now, thanks to President Trump, we (the public) will have access to it again. 

False. On a couple of levels.  

First, the land did not belong to nor has it ever belonged to the state of Utah or to local Utah residents.  It has belonged to the federal government since before Utah even became a state.   Besides, under the Antiquities Act, a President can only designate a National Monument on pre-existing public land anyway.   Not to mention the fact that Native Americans lived there long before the federal government took possession of it.

Second, the public has always had access, even to the land within the National Monument boundaries, so there was nothing to “restore”.

Now might be a good time to stop and explain what “public land” means because there are a lot of misconceptions out there, even coming from the Administration itself.  A quick cheat sheet:

  • public land = federal land = federally-owned land = “protected” land— and it is managed by various agencies: Bureau of Land Management (BLM), US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service.  
  • Where is all this public land? — All over the U.S.  There are even federally protected areas smack in the middle of Manhattan.
  • Who has access to public land? — EVERYONE.  “Protected” doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily closed-off to you.  It just means that there are variations in the types of activities you’re allowed to do there. In National Monuments you can hike, hunt, fish, camp, go mountain biking, etc.  Heck, as long as it was legal before it became a monument, you can even continue to graze your cattle and own land within the protected boundaries.  National Parks, Designated Wilderness Areas, National Forests, National Refuges, etc. are all acquired/designated in different ways (i.e., not covered under the Antiquities Act) and have various other restrictions on types and locations of allowed activity, but hiking is generally always permitted on designated trails.   That said, the federal government leases some public land to, for example, ranchers and mining companies, so those areas might be closed to the public.
  • In a poor economy, aren’t public lands a waste of money?  Nope.  Check out this fact sheet from the BLM.


True or False?  The President gave the land back to the state of Utah and local residents.

False. The land now reverts back to being under the control of BLM and the US Forest Service.  The President’s Proclamation directly and specifically opens those lands to potential sale or to exploitation by the energy industry, both of which could partially or wholly cut off access to the public, including local residents.  Utah might tangentially benefit from any establishment of energy industry activities or sale to private companies through, e.g., jobs and resource taxes.


True or False?  Ok so since it just goes back to being federal (public) land anyway nothing changes about the hiking experience.

True. For now.  

But should the land be opened up to exploitation by the energy industry as the Proclamation directly intends it to be, then not only would those areas be cut off from hiking access but there would be obvious negative environmental and aesthetic impacts.  Should the land be sold, public access, and hence hiking, would be cut off.


True or False? The majority of people support the Presidential Proclamation.

False. More than 99% of respondents to the Administration’s public comment period did NOT support the proposed shrinkage of the monuments, and many Native American groups have spoken out against it.  There are anecdotal stories of a relatively small amount of local support — and just as many stories of local resistance to the proclamation; there are no local polling numbers.


True or False?  Ownership of land is an overreach of federal government powers.

Neither true nor false.  This is not a matter of fact but of opinion/philosophy (though, in fact, it could be prohibitively expensive for States to try to take control of public lands).  As an advocacy organization dedicated to the preservation, protection, and promotion of hiking and hiking spaces, AHS believes that federal ownership and protection of land that it is of particular historical, cultural, ecological, and/or aesthetic significance and the access of the public thereto is of vital importance to Americans.  Further, we believe that the federal government, and hence, all Americans, should think of themselves not as “owners”, but as careful stewards of these treasures for all global citizens.  After all, wouldn’t it be a shame if we couldn’t count on France to protect its Alps, Argentina and Chile to protect Patagonia, or Tanzania to protect the Serengeti?


By the way, I would also recommend reading this fact-checking blog by our friends at Modern Hiker.

Article by Kate Van Waes, Executive Director at American Hiking Society