OPINION: Zinke Bites into Bears Ears, Hurts Our Communities
By Danyelle Leentjes
We just can’t decide: Is it better than our worst fears? Or just as bad? Illogical? Disappointing? Short-sighted? Harmful?
Yes; all of the above. Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke just finished his unnecessary “review” of two dozen National Monuments, mandating changes that are illegal, locally unpopular and leave irreplaceable ruins, artifacts and other treasures open to looting, vandalism and private development.
Secretary Zinke visited only eight of the 27 monuments under his initial review. Nonetheless, after a secretive process, he’s eliminating wide swaths of currently protected, irreplaceable public lands. Disregarding the wishes of tribes and other local stakeholders, the administration will likely slash the size of Bears Ears National Monument (BENM), just over the border in Utah. Why are they doing this? Given that it’s a lot harder to manage multiple, non-adjacent bits than to manage a single (landscape level?) monument, we can only assume that the administration’s goal is to open up more of these areas to oil and gas drilling and mining. A limited amount of such activity currently occurs on BENM and other sacred and beautiful public lands, but that may now become an unlimited amount.
Disregarding the wishes of tribes and other local stakeholders, the administration has threatened to slash the size of some or many of our National Monuments and sacred lands across the West.
We know that in many important ways, shrinking Bears Ears National Monument and others to the size of a postage stamp is just as bad as rescinding their national monument designations.
This isn’t just a theoretical or distant problem for us here in the West.
First, when Zinke decided to shrink the size of and access to Bears Ears, he chose to shrink outdoor recreation opportunities. For example, sportsmen and women have hunted elk and mule deer in this area for many years.
Second, his mandate opens sites of great cultural, sacred and historical value to looters and vandals, in addition to mineral and development interests. Limiting the protection of Bears Ears threatens the more than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites there.
Third, the erasure of acreage harms the economic success of nearby rural communities.
It’s important to the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association (CRIA), as steward of Chimney Rock National Monument, that other monuments are kept sacred and protected. And as long-time residents of Southwest Colorado, we care deeply about the economic success of our region. We are compelled to defend an outdoor economy that creates thousands of jobs and millions in local spending directly generated by nearby dependably-preserved designated lands.
When an area is designated as a monument, no state or federal funding follows — but monuments become a stop on the tourist map where visitors spend money and create jobs. Areas near national monuments see economic growth, more jobs and increased personal income.
Chimney Rock National Monument provides an example of such an economic boost. Since 2012, Chimney Rock has doubled its visitors. With each yearly increase in visitation has come a corresponding boost to the area’s economy; since 2015, the monument has brought $1.5 million to the surrounding communities. Visitors spend an average of $145 every day and stay at least one night in the area.
In fact, rural western counties with more than 30% protected public lands have seen the number of jobs increase by 345% over areas without protected lands. CRIA hopes our elected leaders understand the positive cultural and economic impacts that these special designations have on Western Colorado communities. Senator Bennet, Senator Gardner and Congressman Tipton have spoken out in support of public lands in Colorado; we now urge them — and Governor Hickenlooper — to lead a broader effort to stop the attacks on monuments across the West and across the country.
Danyelle Leentjes is the Administrative Director for Chimney Rock Interpretive Association (CRIA).