The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Less than a year ago, President Barack Obama established Bears Ears National Monument in an attempt to protect some 1.35 million acres of awe-inspiring red rock canyons in Utah. It holds an almost countless number of ancient dwellings and petroglyphs, in among unique geological formations. But yesterday, 85 percent of that land lost its National Monument protection, after President Donald Trump rescinded its protections and those of large portions of nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

William Lipe

On one hand, this appears to expose around two million acres to commercial activities, ranging from oil and gas extraction to mining and logging. But it’s not all going to be razed tomorrow. Significant portions of that land and its bounty do still hold other forms of protection. The key, says Bill Lipe, an archaeologist at Washington State University, is that the monument designation guarantees a higher standard for new development projects.

“Traditional economic uses such as grazing, as well as hunting and fishing, will continue, and existing mineral extraction leases will be honored,” when land is designated, he says. “However, new leases will not be offered, and developments such as road and utility corridor construction will be evaluated more stringently in terms of their impact on the landscape—both cultural and environmental.” Now far less land will be subject to that level of scrutiny, which also could have an impact on the places that retain some kind of protection.

Another, more worrying, effect of the changes, Lipe says, is that while it may leave protection in place for individual cultural heritage sites, it ignores their context—the smaller important places spread across the landscape that show how ancient people used and moved through the land. This is a tragedy for archaeological study, which recognizes the historic value of the landscape as a whole. “The sites visitors are drawn to are typically parts of larger distributions of related sites that together represent dispersed communities and social networks,” Lipe says. In other words, the forest is more valuable than the trees alone.

“This kind of perspective is possible because the physical landscape of the Bears Ears Monument is relatively intact, because it has not seen extensive or large-scale modern economic development.” So far, that is.

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