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Utah’s Bears Ears monument is a rock star for night skies – and mineral resources

Constellations shine behind Owachomo bridge at the Natural Bridges National Monument, part of the new Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah. A new study finds that Bears Ears has darker night skies – essential for stargazing – than seven other national parks in the West of similar size.
Constellations shine behind Owachomo bridge at the Natural Bridges National Monument, part of the new Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah. A new study finds that Bears Ears has darker night skies – essential for stargazing – than seven other national parks in the West of similar size. AP

It’s a landscape of conflict that pits Utah’s Republicans against environmentalists and Native American tribes. Ever since it was created in December, the new 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument has sparked debate about federal overreach and how to best preserve the early American antiquities of southeastern Utah.

But there’s another aspect of Bears Ears that has received less attention – its natural splendor. According to a report released Tuesday, the new monument stacks up favorably with other national parks when it comes to wildlife habitats, diversity of species and twinkling night skies.

The report, prepared by Conservation Science Partners Inc., is an extension of several analyses the firm has prepared on the landscapes of the western United States, including property controlled by the federal government. Using various indicators of environmental conditions, the company compared Bears Ears to seven similarly sized national parks, including Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.

“This shows that Bears Ears is one of the most ecologically significant areas of the West, even when compared to some of our iconic national parks,” said Jenny Rowland, a research manager at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal Washington think tank that commissioned the report. “Bears Ears really holds up in most of these categories.”

CAP officials said they launched the Conservation Science Partners analysis to better document the environmental value of the new national monument. They did so after Gov. Gary Herbert and other Utah Republicans started lobbying President Donald Trump to rescind the monument or significantly shrink its boundaries.

“This was an opportunity to get past some of the rhetoric and focus on the science,” said Kate Kelly, director of public lands for the Center for American Progress.

Bears Ears is part of a larger, raging debate over federal land management nationwide. Many state lawmakers and county officials chafe at the federal government’s large landholdings in the West and President Obama’s creation of new national monuments. Some are lobbying Congress to transfer swaths of federal land to state ownership, in part to facilitate new economic development.

Supporters of national monuments take an opposite view. They say that, even under government ownership, federal lands in the West are being fragmented by new roads and oil and gas rigs, and are calling for stronger conservation measures to protect them.

In a report last year, CAP analyzed the factors altering intact landscapes across public and private lands. The report, Disappearing West, concluded that new housing and energy developments were transforming supposedly protected areas, with an area the size of a football field affected every 2.5 minutes.

Should it survive a challenge, the national monument status of Bears Ears will allow continued livestock grazing, but prevent new mining and energy development on its 1.35 million acres. That could be a sore point for affected industries, since the Conservation Science Partners analysis prepared shows that Bears Ears includes sizeable deposits of uranium, as well as copper and vanadium, an additive in steel making. The monument also is in the mid-range of comparable federal lands for potential oil and gas deposits, according to a 2009 study of potential resources in the region.

In a recent interview with McClatchy, Utah Gov. Herbert rejected suggestions that he wanted to rescind Bears Ears’ monument status so it again could be used for mineral and energy development. “It is a red herring to think that if you rescind the monument you open it up to oil and gas drilling,” he said, adding that Obama had disregarded the views of Utah’s elected leaders in designating the new monument.

Yet conservationists note that, prior to Obama’s decision, at least one oil company – Houston-based EOG Resources, formerly part of the Enron Corp. – was exploring for oil and gas. Last May, the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining approved EOG’s proposal to drill on state trust lands near Bluff, Utah, that are now part of the monument.

“There’s a good amount of resources under there,” said Rowland of CAP. “That could be a reason that some people want the monument status of Bears Ears to be eliminated.”

According to the Conservation Science Partners analysis, Bears Ears stands out for several natural features. The monument has darker night skies – essential for star gazing – than the seven other national parks the firm studied. There are no major cities or towns near Bears Ears, which is why stargazers see much less light pollution than what they experience at Arches, Grand Canyon and Yosemite national parks.

Bears Ears also scored high on “ecological intactness” and “ecological connectivity,” a measure of whether corridors exist that wildlife can use to migrate to and from nearby parks and preserves. “The value of a place that’s so intact and undisturbed can’t be overstated,” said the Center for American Progress’ Kelly.

Brett Dickson, president and chief scientist at Conservation Science Partners, based in Truckee, California, said a number of species, including mule deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, black bears and mountain lions, benefit from the area’s relatively pristine environment.

The Trump administration hasn’t yet announced a decision on whether it will seek to revoke the monument status of Bears Ears. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has pledged to Utah lawmakers he will make a personal visit to the area, and a decision is expected after that trip.

Stuart Leavenworth: 202-383-6070, @sleavenworth