06.05.17 | By Cyrus Philbrick

On April 26, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order requiring a governmental review of all national monument designations made since 1996. The order has put a spotlight on the value and purpose of some of our most beautiful public lands. First up for review is Bears Ears National Monument -- over a million acres of mesas, canyons, shrublands, forests, and Native American archaeological sites in Southeastern Utah.

One of the main arguments against protecting Bears Ears -- and therefore for allowing more private development of the land -- rests on a narrowly focused economic analysis. Opponents have argued that monument designation undermines the local economy -- locking away land purportedly displaces reliable local employment based on natural resource extraction.  

We at Earth Economics have a different view. Our analysis suggests that Bears Ears represents a landscape of diverse values that aren't currently recognized by the recent executive order.  

Bears Ears’ cultural values are deeply rooted in both the history and the current customs of tribal nations. Several Southwestern tribes trace their ancestry to the peoples who populated the Bears Ears region over the last ten thousand years. Thousands of archaeological sites grace the landscape: ancient roads, pueblos, pit houses, shrines, great houses, kivas, cliff dwellings, and hieroglyphs.

More than half of San Juan County's 15,000 residents are Native Americans - and tribal coalitions have been some of the strongest voices in favor of protecting Bears Ears. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, an alliance of five local tribes, has emphasized that protecting the land is not just about protecting memories. Navajo and Ute people currently use the land to hunt game and collect herbs and medicine. Such land uses, which are protected under the area's monument designation, would be threatened by an influx of private development. 

Deep cultural significance is not the only value Bears Ears has to offer. The land also provides economic values that would be undermined by resource extraction. To capture some of these values, Earth Economics recently conducted a preliminary ecosystem services valuation. 

This rapid assessment finds that Bears Ears provides over $1 billion in ecosystem service benefits each year. Large as this number may appear, it is also a highly conservative estimate of the land’s worth. With a full analysis, that number could grow.  

Bears Ears’ natural capital value comes in diverse forms -- water filtration, aesthetic value, flood risk reduction, recreation, and more. The Manti-La Sal National Forest within Bears Ears, for example, filters the water that supplies downstream communities in Utah and Arizona. A study of water capture in Utah shows that the land's natural ability to store and filter water provides benefits of about $40 million annually.[1]

Rather than undermining local economies, the monument's diverse recreation opportunities actually support local economies by attracting regional and national tourists to rock climb, hunt, hike, backpack, raft, and bike. Over 91,000 people make yearly visits to the Natural Bridges National Monument alone, which represents only a fraction of Bears Ears land. Opening Bears Ears to more land-scarring industries like mining and drilling would diminish the kinds of recreation that could exist far into the future.  

A number of Utah's many outdoor recreation businesses have voiced strong support for the national monument. Nazz Kurth, president of Petzl, an outdoor gear manufacturer, explained why he supports protection in a recent Salt Lake Tribune article. Kurth said: "Visitors come to our state not to see drill rigs, but to see the sweeping landscapes, to experience the sandstone and the majesty of the desert and they spend money when they do that. They support local economies and that's something that is truly renewable over and over again."

Incorporating ecosystem services in a broader, more comprehensive view of national monuments’ values reveals the cultural and economic power of preserving precious public spaces. Caring for natural capital benefits diverse groups. Local communities, tribes, and visitors will all receive the land's many ecosystem services for free, and for long into the future.


Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management via Flickr


[1] Hill, B. H., Kolka, R. K., McCormick, F. H., Starry, M. A. 2014. A synoptic survey of ecosystem services from headwater catchments in the United States. Ecosystem Services 7: 106-115.

Opportunity for Public Comment

The period for public comment about the Department of the Interior's review of Bears Ears has been extended to July 10. Until July 10 the public can also comment on 26 other national monuments.

The public has flooded the Department with support for the Bears Ears National Monument. As of June 15, over one million people have submitted comments. Make your voice heard here.