Biden cracks the door to a grazing phaseout in both monuments 

Jonathan P. Thompson
Oct 11
A monarch butterfly in one of the few areas off-limits to grazing in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Jonathan P. Thompson photo, 2019. 

At first glance, President Biden’s restoration of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments appeared to be just that: He merely turned back the clock to a pre-Trump time, when the monuments were intact. But a closer look reveals that Biden did more than just roll back Trump’s rollback, and in fact made subtle changes which could provide an opportunity to build back the monuments better and stronger than before. 

Under the Antiquities Act, the President designates a national monument via a proclamation, comprised of a rundown of the assets within the monument—a justification for the protections—along with an overarching framework guiding management. Some of the provisions are boilerplate, such as withdrawing land from future oil and gas and coal leasing and new mining claims. Others are particular to each monument, such as then-President Obama’s mandate to create a Bears Ears Commission to guide management of the new monument. The agencies in charge—in these cases the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service—then develop detailed management plans, to be implemented on the ground by the respective agency field offices. 

Trump’s dramatic shrinkage of the monuments was unprecedented, meaning the restoration thereof was also novel. In theory, Biden simply could have voided Trump’s shrinkage, thereby restoring the original proclamations. Instead, Biden issued his own proclamations. While they draw heavily from the originals made by Clinton (GSENM, 1996) and Obama (Bears Ears, 2016), they are not mere repeats. Here are some differences and the top takeaways: 

  1. Biden gets verbose. Biden’s proclamations would drive a copyeditor crazy, spurring her to whip out that red pen and slash the corpulent word count down to something resembling succinctness. Seemingly every corner of these million-acre landscapes, from Alvey Wash to Harts Point to Beef Basin to the Cockscomb, gets a meticulous, drawn-out description. This isn’t about loquacious authors and lax editors, however. One of Trump’s justifications for diminishing the monuments is that they purportedly didn’t comply with the Antiquities Act requirement that they “be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” Scott Berry, Vice-President of the Grand Staircase-Escalante PartnersBoard, suggested that the additional word count may have been intended to demonstrate the need to protect every acre of the designations, so as to buffer against future attempts to revoke or diminish the monuments. 
  2. Sacred sites and traditional uses. When Clinton designated GSENM in 1996, he did not directly mention protection of sacred sites, nor did he explicitly reserve tribal access to the monuments for traditional uses. By contrast, Biden’s GSENM proclamation and Obama’s Bears Ears proclamation include language saying, “The Secretary shall … ensure the protection of sacred sites and cultural properties and sites in the monument and provide access to Tribal members for traditional cultural, spiritual, and customary uses … including collection of medicines, berries and other vegetation, forest products … .”
  3. Bears Ears Transportation Plan? Obama’s Bears Ears plan calls for the development of a separate transportation plan designating roads and trails as open or closed to motorized or non-motorized use, something that would have been included in a management plan. Biden doesn’t mention it. 
  4. Recreation and tourism. Clinton’s GSENM proclamation is aimed solely at protecting natural and cultural resources. Obama’s and Biden’s proclamations also highlight the monuments’ contribution to local tourism economies: The area contains numerous objects of historic and scientific interest, and it provides world-class outdoor recreation opportunities, including rock climbing, hunting, hiking, backpacking, canyoneering, river running, mountain biking, and horseback riding, that support a travel and tourism sector that is a source of economic opportunity for the region. On the one hand, this answers concerns that designation will destroy local economies. On the other it bolsters’ critics claims that designation will lead to an uptick in “wreckreation” on fragile landscapes. 
  5. Starting from scratch. Agency officials will develop new management plans from scratch for both monuments, rather than reinstating the pre-Trump plan for Grand Staircase-Escalante. This is significant given that management of GSENM was widely seen as problematic long before Trump diminished the monument. 
  6. Grazing phaseout? And, perhaps most significant, Biden’s language around grazing is slightly different than both Clinton’s and Obama’s. Here are the relevant passages:

Clinton and Obama both went out of their way to assure folks that designation would not mess with public lands livestock operations, with Clinton even saying that levels of grazing would not be diminished. Indeed, 20 years after the proclamation was issued, the number of animal unit months on the monument remained virtually unchanged and more than 95 percent of the monument remains open to livestock. Grazing in Obama’s Bears Ears likewise would be unaffected. 

Biden’s proclamation doesn’t ban or even restrict grazing—not even close. But by locking in voluntary retirements for both national monuments he set the stage for a market-based grazing reduction over the long term, perhaps reviving a program first seeded in the late 1990s. 

A few years after GSENM’s designation, the Grand Canyon Trust helped broker a deal to compensate ranchers to give up their BLM grazing permits in the Escalante River watershed. The ranchers were able to buy ranches elsewhere, retire comfortably, or continue to ranch in other parts of the region. The BLM then reallocated the forage and allotments to wildlife and watershed restoration. It was a win-win situation¹. 

Until it wasn’t

In 2020 the BLM issued a new management plan for the shrunken national monument reopening tens of thousands of acres within the monument to grazing, including nearly 90 percent of the previously retired grazing allotments. The BLM, in other words, had reneged on its deal. Biden’s added language would make it far more difficult for the BLM to back out of such deals and it would provide more certainty for conservation groups looking to fund these buyouts. More importantly, it does away with the notion that grazing levels should remain constant. 

“The BLM generally takes the position that its obligation to provide grazing is more important than its obligations toward resource protection,” Berry said in an email. “Where grazing and resource protection were in conflict, decisions about forage expansion were prioritized, to the detriment of those other interests. Hopefully, this new language will ground a new approach, where resource protection is recognized as the dominant priority within GSENM.”

Ultimately, though, the approach taken with either of these national monuments is largely dependent upon the management plan, the staffers charged with carrying out the plan, the presiding culture within the oversight agencies, and the level of funding allocated to the plan’s implementation. The first GSENM plan was finished in 1999 and promised great things, but in the years since, the monument’s scientists have been replaced by rangeland managers, funding has diminished, and the culture has prioritized grazing over preservation. 

Where the Biden BLM will end up is anyone’s guess. On the one hand, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland seems intent on rebuilding the agency and overhauling its culture, and the administration’s appointments to top agency posts reflect this. On the other hand, Haaland hasn’t made any moves to reform public lands grazing and top administration officials say they want grazing lands to count towards their 30×30 conservation goals. 

As for the concerned public, its task is to stay involved, hold the agencies accountable, and provide input into management plan development. 

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Gale Norton, Secretary of the Interior under George W. Bush, used this exact term to describe these sorts of grazing permit buyouts for conservation purposes. But when the Grand Canyon Trust tried to expand its buyout program, the livestock industry and their Sagebrush Rebel/Wise Use friends lashed back, pressuring the BLM to end the practice because, they said, the retirements went against Clinton’s proclamation calling for constant grazing levels. Legal challenges were filed and Utah lawmakers passed legislation opposing such buyouts. Ultimately the BLM’s overriding notion that all lands designated as suitable for grazing should be grazed won out. The Grand Canyon Trust’s grazing permit buyout program faded, but the GSENM Escalante River allotments remained retired—until 2020.

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