Dull finish on Browning Hi-power.
Dull finish on Browning Hi-power.
national monuments
Gold Butte, Nev., one of the newest national monuments. Courtesy Andrew/Flickr

Last winter, I was lucky enough to go south for a few days and hunt Gambel’s and scaled quail in the new Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument, near Las Cruces, N.M. I was lucky to have some of the toughest bird hunters in New Mexico to show me the country, and to tell me its stories—tales of the Butterfield Trail, more than 100 years of bloody Apache raids against Spanish and American invaders, elusive outlaws like Billy the Kid, echoes of relentless warfare, ancient traditions of the hunt, and brutal human endurance in a history-soaked, hyper-arid landscape. The Organs, the Robledos, and the Uvas soar jagged into a harsh white sky, and underfoot “lithic scatter”—the chips of rock from hunters and warriors making arrow and spear points—shares the sand with old pistols and .45-70 brass black with age. It is a place where a person needs to keep an eye on the canteen, the boot leather, and the gas gauge.

We found the quail (though I did not hit a single one of them; it is some of the most demanding shooting, in dense thorn and steep jagged rock, that I have ever attempted. I can’t wait to go back), climbed the mesas, ate oryx steaks smothered in green chili, and cooked on a discada in a lonely canyon, where the rocks were inscribed with the most bizarre petroglyphs I have ever seen: winged and horned giants, weirdly-haloed antelope, and what look like extraterrestrial birds and lizards floating among stars and planets. I cannot imagine a better place to be protected as a national monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The people I hunted with, locals all, felt the same way.

Last week, as I read the news about our two newest national monuments, the Bears Ears, in southern Utah, and the Gold Butte, in Nevada, (good coverage about it here), I was, at first, overjoyed. I loved the Organ Mountains National Monument, and I spend what is probably an inordinate amount of time hunting and exploring in the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument east of our home in Montana. I’ve always wanted to see the Bears Ears country.

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I’m familiar with the furies unleashed by the establishment of the monument in the Missouri Breaks—I hear about them all the time—but I have never completely understood them, because most of them are not based on anything concrete. No one I know can point out any losses they have incurred from the monument status, or to any new rules that negatively affect their grazing, hunting, or other uses of the public lands inside the monument.

But the level of anger, and the level of pure disinformation coming out in the wake of the two new monuments, is beyond anything I have ever seen. If Americans want to oppose conservation of our public lands and waters by the federal government, then so be it. But such opposition should be as fact-based as possible.

There are indeed concerns for hunters, shooters, fishermen, and other public-land users in monument designation. But these concerns cannot be addressed by citizens engaged in nonsensical ranting and parroting falsehoods as fact.

Two years ago, I helped to write a report called “National Monuments: A Sportsmen’s Perspective” for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. I did my research, and I tried my best to remain objective and to find the pitfalls of these new levels of protection for American hunters, fishermen, shooters, hikers, and campers. I was lucky to get to do a lot of research, and I’d like to share what I found.

First, a bit of history: National monuments are created under the authority of the Antiquities Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1906. The Antiquities Act was championed by Congressman John Fletcher Lacey of Iowa, a conservative Republican who rose from the rank of private to adjutant general during four years of combat on the Union side of the Civil War (and who is known mostly today for the Lacey Act of 1900, which ended the devastating era of market hunting and fishing). John Fletcher Lacey was an early member of the Boone and Crockett Club, and much concerned with the rampant destruction of America’s natural heritage and history that accompanied the closing of the frontier. On an expedition to the desert southwest in the 1890s, archeologists showed Lacey the free-for-all looting of ancient Native American ruins throughout northern New Mexico. Lacey, like other conservation leaders of the time, viewed the pillage of the archeological sites the same way he did the extermination of the bison and other wild game, and the clear-cutting of the forests—as a clear threat to the future of the nation. In arguing for the Antiquities Act, Lacey said, “The immensity of man’s power to destroy imposes a responsibility to preserve.” The Act passed Congress with little opposition.

In the past 110 years, 16 presidents, (eight Democrats and eight Republicans) have used the power of the Antiquities Act to designate 126 national monuments, ranging from Calvin Coolidge’s designation of the 320-square-foot Father Millett Cross, in Youngstown, N.Y., to the 140,000-square-mile Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument designated by George W. Bush. The first national monument, established by President Theodore Roosevelt, was Devil’s Tower, in Wyoming. Barack Obama has used the Act a record 29 times.

The new Bears Ears National Monument, in Utah, is 1.35 million acres. The Gold Butte National Monument north of Las Vegas, Nev., is 300,000 acres.

Why has the Antiquities Act, and the national monuments it can create, become so controversial? Mostly because it enables the president to declare a protected status on federally managed public lands without the approval of Congress. Some people feel that it gives the president too much power to act alone to accomplish these resource protection goals.

Also, the Antiquities Act explicitly states that monument designation should be limited: “The limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” Critics claim, with some justification, that the Antiquities Act was too loosely written and was never intended to apply to such large expanses of public lands. As with many other landmark pieces of conservation and land-protection legislation, the Antiquities Act is heartily despised by many modern conservative groups. Congressional Representative Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican, has called it “the most evil act ever invented.” (Go here for excellent coverage of the debate over the establishment of the Bear’s Ears National Monument.)

It is worth noting that the declaration of National Monuments has been used by presidents time and time again to protect public lands when Congress was unable to, or refused to do so, even when there was widespread public support for such protection. As the monument proclamation for the Bears Ears reads: “The Bears Ears area has been proposed for protection by members of Congress, Secretaries of the Interior, State and tribal leaders, and local conservationists for at least 80 years. The area contains numerous objects of historic and of scientific interest, and it provides world-class outdoor recreation opportunities, including rock climbing, hunting, hiking, backpacking, canyoneering, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and horseback riding.”

The Bears Ears country, too, was much in the news for a federal sting that targeted residents of Blanding, Utah, for looting archaeological sites. Gold Butte contains some of the lands grazed by anti-federal firebrand Cliven Bundy and his family, although it is the archeological, wildlife, and watershed values that inspired its designation. No legal livestock grazing has occurred on public lands in the Gold Butte area since 1998.

Is it a land grab? No. The Antiquities Act applies only to lands that are already in public ownership. Like the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument, and many others, the Bears Ears and Gold Butte monuments are designed to protect archeological and other resources on public land. No private or state lands can be declared monuments under the Antiquities Act unless they are donated to the federal government.

Bears Ears National Monument
A view of Indian Creek, in the Bears Ears National Monument. Courtesy BLM

Can you hunt on national monuments? Yes, if hunting is feasible. But it is critical to the future of hunting on these lands that the public lands in the monument remain under the authority of a multiple-use agency, such as the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service. Ever since Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt recognized, in 1993, that multiple-use agencies, like the BLM, were perfectly capable of managing national monument lands, monument status does not mean management by the National Park Service. Unlike park status, National Monuments managed by the BLM are open to their traditional uses. The first national monument managed by the BLM was the 1.9 million acre Escalante-Grand Staircase, in Utah, established in 1996. The Bears Ears and Gold Butte are now, and will remain, managed by the BLM.

Who manages the wildlife on these lands? State fish and wildlife agencies retain management of the wildlife, just as they do on other public and private lands.

Is the land “locked up” in the monument? Judge for yourself.

Although the protection of archeological resources may require some new motorized travel restrictions, most traditional uses, including hunting and grazing, are continued without changes. New logging and mining operations and oil and gas drilling are restricted or prohibited (which contributed to the uproar over the establishment of the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in 1996—there are significant coal deposits within the monument).

Much of the opposition to monument designation has come from ranchers who hold grazing leases on the public lands inside the monument boundaries, because there is a suspicion that such leases will be bought-out or terminated under future management plans. So far, such fears have not proved true.

In the long conflict over grazing on public lands, monument designation has not yet proved to be significant. In many cases, grazing is specifically mentioned as a traditional use of monument lands, giving grazing in monuments a protection that other public lands managed by the BLM do not have. (The proclamation for the 2015 Basin and Range National Monument specifically states, “Nothing in this proclamation shall be deemed to affect authorizations for livestock grazing, or administration thereof.”)

But the suspicion remains. Monument designation is definitely a statement that these public lands are valued for more than just their grazing potential, which is disturbing to the ranchers who use them.

Can a new president undo monument designation? That has never been done before, and the use of the Antiquities Act has withstood many court challenges, all the way to the Supreme Court.

For too many of us, any new land-conservation efforts are falling into the strange, and, apparently, insatiable, maw of partisan politics. Few Americans will ever say that they oppose public-land conservation plans because they simply want the freedom to overgraze, cut all the timber, loot archaeological treasures, ride ATVs through fragile desert creeks and wetlands, or establish huge open-pit mining projects in places like Escalante. But silence, or opposition to every plan to conserve any part of our most valuable and beautiful public lands, is a choice, too. The designation of national monuments is one of the only cases where politicians and those who simply want to criticize land managers pay a price for never coming up with a plan of their own.

For a hunter, opposing or supporting monument designation should be based on as much knowledge of the history, and the process, as it is possible to attain. There is no such thing as a “post-truth” period in history, as some are claiming we are in now—the truth is on the ground, in these magnificent landscapes, in our deserts and mountains and swamps. It can even be ferreted out from the news, if we look for it, and don’t let our biases and angers control our search for it.

Read the proclamations that created the two new monuments (here and here) and notice that both ask for public involvement in the management plans. In a nation like ours, our world is run by those who show up, and run best by those who show up informed and with clear suggestions and demands. Our national monuments provide some of the greatest hunting opportunities in the world. They will remain so as long as hunters get involved, and stay involved, in the public process.

As Grey Wilson, a realtor from Logan, Utah, told me recently, “I’ve hunted the Bears Ears country since 2001, the first time right after 9/11. It’s one of the preeminent elk and mule deer hunting areas in our state—370 plus bulls, giant mule deer bucks in the 180-inch range. We’ll hunt bear in there in the fall and the spring, and cut so many tracks that the dogs will get exhausted long before the day’s over. It may take you 20 years to draw that elk tag, but what you are getting is one of the last true wilderness hunts in the country. In the Dark Canyon, the country is so rugged, so wild, I’ll bet that there are elk in there that have never seen a person.”

Was he worried about the new monument? “I guess we worry some about more people coming to see it, more tourists. But it deserved to be protected. Most of it is so remote and rugged that an increase in people knowing about it is a minor risk compared with leaving all that history, and all that land, unprotected.”