Rep. Rob Bishop, the chief congressional backstop and encourager of President Trump’s rollback of national monuments, said the president's moves are being mischaracterized by opponents.
“We can only overcome it with the truth,” Bishop told the Washington Examiner in a recent interview. “The reality is this was never about conservation versus development. Interest groups who claim to be environmentalists are always making pictures of oil rigs and oil wells drilling on these areas. That is a false narrative and it’s a fake issue. We are taking that narrative off the table and we are simply saying it’s a lie.”
Trump on Dec. 4 signed a proclamation cutting the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah by more than 1.1 million acres, or 85 percent. Trump also shrunk in half the 1.86 million Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, and he is considering reducing the size of two more monuments and changing how six others are managed.
Multiple environmental groups and Native American tribes have sued the Trump administration over the moves, arguing the president acted beyond his power.
Bishop, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, argues the president can undo national monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act exactly how he can make them. To make his point, Bishop and his committee have engaged in a public feud with outdoor retailer Patagonia, whose owner, Yvon Chouinard, has become a major agitator, filing its own lawsuit against the Trump administration.
Bishop says Patagonia’s public campaign exemplifies how the debate over monuments has gone national and away from the people who live near the land at stake.
“It is bizarre to me why this has become as controversial as it is, the entire thing about creating national monuments,” Bishop said. “The premise has to be there can be economic development, but it can’t take away from environmental concerns or preservation. That's why the entire PR campaign against what the president and we are trying to do in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase is so galling. Because they are trying to say you can either have preservation or you can have development, you can’t have both. That once again is a lie. I am not saying Patagonia is lying, but they are.”
Bishop has been waiting for this moment to overhaul the Antiquities Act, and he and his allies from Utah’s congressional delegation are wasting no time to make sure it’s not fleeting.
Utah Republicans introduced legislation a day after Trump’s announcement to enshrine into law the proposed changes to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase.
In a direct response to critics, the bill for Bears Ears, authored by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, explicitly bars mining and drilling in the new monument area as well as in the land that was covered before Trump altered the boundaries.
“There is no oil and gas in the area to drill,” Bishop said. “In that Bears Ears area, there is no development possibilities that are down there. So one of the reasons we are extending the mineral extraction moratorium that was originally part of the presidential proclamation and putting into the statute is to illustrate the point that this is not about industry development. It's not about oil or gas or drilling or mining or anything like that.”
In contrast, the Grand Staircase bill, written by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, would allow mining and drilling because the land on which the monument sits has significant coal deposits and some oil and gas reserves.
But the fate of Bears Ears is long-fought and considerably more contentious.
Former President Barack Obama created the 1.35-acre Bears Ears National Monument just before he left office, protecting a vast area of mesas and canyons in Utah’s poorest county.
It is an area in the southeastern part of the state that five Native American tribes, known as the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, consider sacred and depend on for sustenance and cultural tradition.
Charles Wilkinson, a legal adviser to the coalition, which is suing Trump over his proposed changes, said energy issues are not the biggest concern to the tribes.
“It isn't just a matter of energy development driving this action,” Wilkinson told the Washington Examiner. “It isn't exactly mineral driven. Ranching is more important in terms of opposition to Bears Ears.”
Wilkinson says the tribes most worry about the possibility of ceding control of Bears Ears, and departing from what he says was a carefully managed plan approved by the Obama administration that allowed the tribes to co-manage the land with the federal government.
Bishop, however, argues that Obama’s plan gave tribes a “token advisory role.”
The proposed legislation he supports would permit tribes to co-manage the new Bears Ears territory and create the “first-ever protection enforcement team” for antiquities inside the newly designated monuments.
Wilkinson, speaking for the tribes, said they consider Bishop’s pitch as a “slap in the face.” He notes the co-management structure outlined by Utah Republicans also would give representation to federal and local politicians.
As disagreements linger, and lawsuits threaten, Bishop is eager to secure Trump’s actions by making them law.
He said his committee will host a hearing on the Bears Ears bill during the second week of January, after the panel debated the Grand Staircase legislation earlier this month.
“We need to move forward with those so we can codify what the president did and not leave it up to the variances of either judicial misinterpretation or some other executive coming in there and changing it again,” Bishop said. “What the people in those areas want is just some kind of finality so they know how the land will be managed.”