All eyes are on Utah today as President Trump heads to the state Capitol to announce major cuts to two of the state's largest and most controversial national monuments.
Trump is expected to eliminate nearly 85 percent of Bear Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, cutting more than 1 million acres from its current boundaries. He's also set to halve the nearly 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (E&E News PM, Nov. 30).
The move is being praised by Republicans who have long argued that the Antiquities Act—the 1906 law that allows presidents to set aside public land—is being used unlawfully to lock up tracts of federal land. On the other side, Democratic allies have vowed to take any monument reductions to court.
Scientists who have studied the region, especially Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, say redrawing its boundaries could be detrimental to scientific research and discoveries.
"The monument has been demonstrably a very, very important scientific laboratory to learning and understanding on many realms," said Mike Scott, a retired U.S. Geological Survey researcher.
Scott and his colleagues have spent time in Grand Staircase-Escalante studying how different management policies and activities on rangelands—there are many different kinds across the ecologically diverse monument—affect the health of those ecosystems. Rangeland activities include anything from how grazing affects soil quality to the health of different soil types.
As climate change brings warmer, drier conditions, understanding how to keep soils and grassland ecosystems healthy in arid landscapes is crucial to avoid desertification, Scott said. Grand Staircase-Escalante has been "a really critical living laboratory," he said.
When President Clinton designated the monument in 1996, it drew fire as a land grab from many local residents. A major coal deposit sits inside the monument boundaries, as do untold archaeological and paleontological artifacts. Allowing access to that coal would release carbon dioxide and add to climate change, environmental groups argue.
In his monument proclamation, Clinton wrote about the immense ecological diversity, both current and past, inside Grand Staircase-Escalante and touted its scientific value. Today, many refer to the monument as the "science monument." Although it has faced major funding cuts and seen its ability to conduct science shrink in recent years, research coming out of the area has been "some of the most incredible science," said Phil Hanceford, conservation director of the Wilderness Society's Bureau of Land Management Action Center and a member of the advisory committee for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
"It's so remote, it's a living museum," he said. "Anybody who went out there, including the president, would realize what a treasure we have in this place."
Paleoecologist Scott Anderson studies the middens, or dens, created by pack rats in Grand Staircase-Escalante. The small creatures, common across the West, store plants and other organic material in small crevices. While the rats may only live a few years, the middens can survive for thousands, providing a unique opportunity for scientists to reconstruct the ecological portrait of the environment of that time.
Midden data help scientists understand past climates and how ecosystems have changed. Clinton addressed those data specifically in his presidential proclamation as a reason to protect Grand Staircase-Escalante.
As people face current and future environmental challenges, including climate change, having a window into the past can shed light on the magnitude of changes to come for Western ecosystems, said Anderson, who is a professor of environmental and quaternary sciences at Northern Arizona University.
Slashing the boundaries of the monument could uproot long-term research, he added.
"One of the points of preserving public lands is to allow for the development of knowledge," Anderson said. "You don't put land aside for scientific inquiry and then suddenly, after 10 years, say you know everything."
Shrinking the monuments could also reduce the landscapes' physical resilience and disrupt wildlife migration corridors, experts say. Wildlife corridors are expected to become more important as the impacts of climate change deepen.
The large size of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears means both offer protection to a wide variety of plant and animal species, and ecological processes and conditions. At Grand Staircase-Escalante, the monument encompasses red rock canyon bottoms, valleys, mountain peaks and everything in between.
At Bears Ears, landscapes vary by type but also encompass a large change in gradient. Mule deer, black bears and mountain lions roam the pinyon juniper woodlands at lower elevations and mixed conifers at higher elevations, said Brett Dickson, co-director of the Lab of Landscape Ecology and Conservation Biology and an associate professor at Northern Arizona University.
By protecting a wide variety of habitats, Bears Ears contains a built-in buffer against climate change. It also plays host to endemic species and their unique habitats, which are only found in the monument.
"The range of conditions is pretty phenomenal in Bears Ears when it comes to variety of species and habitats that occur there," Dickson said. "As we lose protections, we would certainly be concerned about loss of species, especially those species that may be only found there, as well as a loss of the habitat that supports them under climate change or land-use change."
In an analysis for the liberal Center for American Progress, Dickson and his colleagues found that both Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears topped the charts in terms of ecological intactness and connectivity. They assessed 22 monuments altogether.
"Losing those protections is like losing protections for some of our most prized and cherished national parks," he said. "The values are that comparable from an ecological and biological standpoint."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.