Activists push to protect Arizona public lands, undo Trump changes
Surveying the largest concentration of petroglyphs in Arizona
Archaeology Southwest and Fort Yuma Quechan tribal members hope the petroglyphs on federal public land will get the land protected.
David Wallace, Arizona Republic
GILA BEND — Before committing to the motion, Zion White cautiously checks where he plans to place his hand, trying to avoid the Native American petroglyphs he’s there to document.
“When I see these petroglyphs, I think about how someone spent the time to peck out that image, put it on this rock and tell our history,” said White, a member of the Fort Yuma Quechan Tribe. “Now, I’m here doing the exact same thing to preserve our history.”
With his hand carefully positioned, White steadies himself and silently shimmies down the side of a boulder.
“Try not to wake the bees,” he whispers, pointing at a pile of honeycombs littering a crack in the cliff face. “Last time, we couldn’t finish documenting this site because of them.”
An explosion from a nearby bombing range rattles the rocks on the ground, breaking the silence he had been trying so hard to keep.
Shrugging, White keeps going.
The location he’s documenting holds more than 14,000 petroglyphs spread across an archaeological site that’s more than a mile long on the Lower Gila River, southwest of Phoenix. Some say this is the highest concentration of documented petroglyphs in the state.
The combination of features, like petroglyphs, geoglyphs and trail networks, and the landscape’s significance to the origin stories of several Native American tribes have led to multiple attempts to have the area, also known as the Great Bend of the Gila, declared a national monument.
But like other efforts to increase federal land protection in Arizona, home to more than 30.5 million acres of public lands — the sixth-highest total in the country — these attempts have failed.
Over the past four years, the former Trump administration refused, reconsidered and reduced proposals to protect public lands across Arizona and the Southwest, easing restrictions on mining, visitation and grazing.
The actions disappointed conservation advocates but came as a relief to some politicians and ranchers who believe the use of public lands should remain uninhibited and that more restrictions only limit local economies.
With a new president and a new Interior secretary in place and progress on proposals like a permanent ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, activists and archaeologists are once again renewing their efforts to protect millions of new acres around the Southwest.
Tribal coalitions and environmental organizations say these choices and changes are long overdue.
During his campaign, President Joe Biden promised to reinstate Barack Obama-era protections removed by Donald Trump in places like Bears Ears National Monument, and to prioritize the conservation of culturally significant tribal lands.
The legal back-and-forth over the three administrations has left federal land agencies, local environmental groups and tribal coalitions unsure of what happens next.
Archaeologists say it’s a costly delay because, to them, the push for prioritizing conservation on public lands is a “race against time.” They believe the population boom and urban sprawl leaves these landscapes vulnerable to development, destruction and, ultimately, being “loved to death.”
The Great Bend of the Gila
Geoglyphs line the mesa’s edge in the desert southwest of Phoenix, only distinctly visible when within kicking distance of the stones.
Trail networks interweave across the mesa’s top, hardly noticeable under the heat haze, easy to miss and even easier to disturb.
Petroglyphs adorn boulders toppled over the mesa’s side, naturally protected by the rugged terrain and the bee colonies White is trying to avoid.
“I’m on my ancestral lands. These images and petroglyphs that are on these rocks have a specific meaning and a lot of times tie into a specific story in our history that we’re trying to preserve,” White said. “It’s what our people left. It’s the history they put down and remembered.”
White is one of several tribal members working with Archaeology Southwest to document petroglyphs in the Great Bend of the Gila, along a river that crosses Arizona from one border to the other.
“It’s important that the original people and inhabitants of these lands are part of these projects because it’s our history that we’re recording,” White said. “We’re bringing in a lot of data that will help individuals understand how much is out here and what needs to be protected.”
There have been three attempts to create a national monument at the Great Bend of the Gila. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairperson of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced the original Great Bend of the Gila National Monument Establishment Act in 2013. He reintroduced it in 2016 and again in 2018.
None of the attempts succeeded, but Archaeology Southwest is working to reimagine how to increase conservation regulations across this landscape for a fourth and what it hopes will be a final effort.
Aaron Wright, a preservation archaeologist leading the organization’s field team, hopes the documentation of cultural features across the Lower Gila will encourage politicians, federal agencies and local residents to support the fourth bid.
“Archaeological sites are often managed based on their significance,” Wright said. “For a place to merit protection in current federal legislation, it has to meet a certain significance threshold. The number of petroglyphs, their current state and this sort of baseline informational data points, are used to make those assessments.”
While “tribal communities have other ways to measure significance,” Wright says land managers speak in the “language of numbers.”
After an initial evaluation, Wright says the site he and White are helping document is likely the highest concentration of petroglyphs in the state. He cautiously claims that may also be true for the region, though he can only be sure after the final report.
Such early estimates are “a snapshot of the larger whole” and “reflect the overall density of petroglyphs in the Great Bend of the Gila,” according to Wright.
“People know there are petroglyphs out there. But they don’t know how many, they don’t know what they look like and they don’t know their condition,” Wright said. “We provide a baseline understanding of what is there.”
Detailed notes are painstakingly taken on observations: its “production technique,” direct or indirect percussion, scratched, abraded or re-pecked; its “condition,” natural damage, gunshots, graffiti, broken or buried; its “intensity,” light, medium or heavy.
The list goes on for several pages.
“Documenting their condition really helps land managers in deciding how to manage, what to manage, when to manage and what resources go into that,” Wright said. “People can love petroglyph sites to death. Even well-intentioned people leave an impact on the landscape.”
The work Archaeology Southwest is doing on the Lower Gila is authorized through a Cultural Resource Use Permit. The data being collected will eventually be reported to the Bureau of Land Management.
The federal agency’s Lower Sonoran Field Office has jurisdiction over the majority of the land Archaeology Southwest hopes to get declared a wilderness area, conservation area or national monument.
“There are a lot of parts of the Lower Gila that haven’t really been studied in very much detail,” said Cheryl Blanchard, an archaeologist with the field office. “We haven’t had the attention paid to some of these sites and resources out there. So it’s wonderful we’re finally getting to the point where we are getting a much better picture of what those areas looked like. This is really going to fill in a blank spot.”
As of 2021, the majority of the land is considered an area of critical environmental concern. In Arizona, there are more than 931,500 acres across 60 parcels of land under that designation, according to public data from the bureau.
“It doesn’t rise to the level of protection of say a wilderness, where you can’t even use vehicles, but it does allow us to be a little more particular about what uses are considered for that area,” Blanchard said. “It just raises it on the radar screen a little bit higher.”
While this is a relatively high level of protection, an area of critical environmental concern can be internally removed by the bureau or the Interior secretary, according to Archaeology Southwest. That’s why the organization is pushing for landscape protection that cannot.
“We’re looking for a permanent designation for protection of the area to preserve the landscape and the heritage that is tied to it,” Wright said. “We want to preserve the landscape. If that looks like wilderness area, great. If that looks like a monument, great. If that looks like a conservation area, great. They are all different tracks to achieve the same goal.”
Referring to the Bureau of Land Management, Wright said: “Under their multiuse mission, they have to find ways to balance between all sorts of interests, some of which are detrimental to long-term preservation of landscapes. So a conservation emphasis would allow them, legally, to put more energy and focus into managing for conservation.”
These efforts, he said, are “a race against time.”
“We’re racing against the development of the Phoenix metro area. You have the development footprint, but then you have a halo around that, representing recreational use of the surrounding landscapes,” Wright said. “These are pressures on sensitive areas.”
Blanchard says she “can’t even begin to guess” whether politicians would support a change in the land’s allocation or designation, though she said there is a high bar to reach for wilderness area protection. According to Blanchard, the acreage and roadless criteria are among the hardest to meet, especially in places like the Lower Gila that have private land sprinkled in.
“In terms of history, when people were looking at areas to designate as wilderness, they had a number of different areas to entertain, but not all of them made the cut,” Blanchard said. “I can see why the area along the Lower Gila might not have met that particular requirement.”
An influx of public lands initiatives after the inauguration of a new president is a phenomenon Blanchard has seen before. She is not surprised that organizations like Archaeology Southwest are reupping their efforts and she notes that transition periods between administrations often comes with a series of new initiatives.
Since joining the bureau’s Phoenix District in 1984, Blanchard has served seven U.S. presidents. She’s noticed how the transition periods between administrations often comes with a series of new initiatives.
“Each administration is going to have its own emphasis. It’s going to have its own things it likes to push forward or back off of,” Blanchard said. “As a person with boots on the ground, you just try to find ways to adjust to that and work within those parameters whatever it is because the pendulum can sure swing back and forth.”
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Casa Grande National Monument
With his hand brushing between barbs of the fence, Bill Doelle suddenly stops and stoops.
He straightens up holding two pot shards and slowly rubs the painted side of each piece. Then he taps them together, listening intently.
“Probably classic period,” he declares before returning them to the dirt.
A few steps later he stoops for another shard. Then another, and another.
Doelle, president of Archaeology Southwest, is surveying one of two pieces of land the organization is advocating to be included within the boundaries of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.
“If one person goes out every weekend and goes through an area, the impact is microscopic. If a hundred people go it starts to build up. If a thousand people go it can be devastating,” Doelle said. “Getting protective infrastructure in place sooner is going to make it easier for people to visit these places respectfully.”
In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison signed an executive order to protect the Casa Grande ruins, along with the surrounding 480 acres, making it the nation’s first federally protected archaeological site. Doelle hopes this history of preservation will pull through in today’s politics.
“Right now, we’re protecting standing structures, and that’s great, but this entire landscape is significant to some tribes,” Doelle said. “We need to have a more holistic approach to preservation.”
A study from Archaeology Southwest traced the land’s cultural affiliation and ancient traditions to five federally recognized tribes: Gila River Indian Community, Hopi Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and Pascua Yaqui Tribe.
In 2019, Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., introduced a bill that would have expanded the monument’s boundaries. Like the original efforts at the Great Bend of the Gila, his bill failed.
“We’re trying to preserve the history of not just Indigenous people, but the history of America, the history of the West and it’s an ongoing process,” O’Halleran said. “Whether it’s museums or setting aside lands with significant historical value, these are important aspects of our future generation.”
O’Halleran believes the monument’s expansion will increase the positive economic impact the site has had on nearby communities, like Coolidge.
A 2018 report issued by the National Park Service estimated that nearly 63,000 visitors spent over $3.72 million in communities around the monument. The report also stated that the site supports more than 50 jobs in the local area.
O’Halleran said he’s ready and willing to support a renewed effort to extend the monument’s boundaries. With “a change in leadership” in the White House and after speaking to members of Biden’s legislative team, O’Halleran said the administration is far “more open to addressing Indigenous areas and setting those aside, especially when they have such a significance.”
Doelle is approaching this renewed effort on two fronts. Archaeology Southwest is also working with the Office of Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz. Nick Matiella, a senior legislative assistant for the senator, confirmed that Kelly intends to file a bill by the end of April to expand the monument’s boundaries.
Ben Littlefield, the superintendent of the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, declined to comment other than to confirm the National Park Service was aware of the bill, but had not given testimony for the legislation.
Restrictions on ranging
It takes Brian DeGanahl roughly two hours to go from one end of his ranch to the other. The 350-square-mile operation in Aguila is a mix of public lands owned by the state or overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.
DeGanahl, who sits on the board of the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association and works on that organization’s federal lands team, passionately disagrees with the process that’s led to thousands of acres across the Southwest being set aside for national monuments.
“Every time a rancher gets kicked off by a national monument, or whatever other designation, there is less management of that land,” DeGanahl said. “If the users are gone, there’s less management. We’re out there every day monitoring grass and water levels, and oftentimes we’re the only people put there. There are recreationalists, hunters and BLM officials but they’re not there every day.”
The Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives the president executive power to declare national monuments, has been misused to cover what DeGanahl says is “far too much land.” Monument designations limit the ways the public can utilize the land. This makes it more difficult for cattle ranchers, like DeGanahl, to use the land for grazing.
DeGanahl believes the purpose of the act was always to protect historical and archaeological sites, not entire landscapes. Monument designations, in places like Casa Grande, are what DeGanahl says should be the norm.
“A couple hundred acres around a Native American ruin, that’s fine. That’s exactly what national monuments were designed to do,” DeGanahl said. “But when you go in and declare thousands and thousands of acres a national monument, you’ve gone overboard. There’s already national parks for that. If you want that protected, fine, but you have to go through Congress.”
The president’s ability to use executive orders to declare national monuments is completely unfair, according to DeGanahl.
“At least if it goes up in Congress, I can call my congressman and ask them to argue against it,” DeGanahl said. “But most of these national monuments are done with executive orders. All the president has to do is sign a paper and no never mind what the locals think.”
DeGanahl’s family has been ranching on public lands in western Arizona since 1954. Within the next few years, his son plans to become a partner on the family ranch. And in a few decades, DeGanahl hopes to see his two grandkids take part in ranching as well.
“Why would I jeopardize the health of this land if my ranch is on this land? Why would I not sustain this environment if I want to see my grandkids make a living on this land in 30 years?” DeGanahl asked. “These monuments mean less management. The BLM can’t manage what they have already. When you kick off the user, like ranchers who have a vested interest in that land, you’re making the land less sustainable.”
“The impact of these national monuments is not good because the rancher manages these lands far more constantly than the BLM ever does,” DeGanahl said. “The day-to-day management is done by the users and if you kick them off, well, it just becomes unmanaged.”
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Bears Ears National Monument
A gentle flurry of snowflakes coats a downed tree by the entrance of the Monarch Cave and a rusty chain holds an ammunition canister in place by the tree’s base.
Within the box, built for bullets, is a battered orange folder containing water-stained pamphlets that explain the ruin’s history, pieces of a spiral notebook for visitors to sign and a dark blue dog leash.
“Oh, we put that there,” said Britt Hornsby, a field director with the Friends of Cedar Mesa, referring to the leash. “Just to help keep dogs from peeing on the site.”
The foot-long canister, used to provide information in a low-profile way, and a two-poled fence are some of the only signs of federal management near the site.
Much of the infrastructure that can be found in other monuments does not exist at Bears Ears. No sign marks its entrance, no official visitor center educates guests on respectful visitation and no tolls collect fees for upkeep.
The Friends of Cedar Mesa’s Bears Ears Education Center in Bluff, Utah, which is currently closed until the fall, is the only thing that resembles an information center.
Between the ammo can and the fence are a half-dozen “road shows,” piles of Native American artifacts, like pot shards and corn husks, put on display by visiting tourists. It’s a practice many environmentalists and archaeologists decry.
“Give me just a second,” Hornsby says, kneeling to strategically disperse and bury the road shows. He hopes this will safeguard the artifacts from light-fingered tourists.
The ruins are a well-trafficked archaeological site within the current boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument, which, for the last several years, has been the epicenter of a public lands debate.
Management varies across the monument. At the Monarch Caves, there are ammo cans and posts. At the Butler Wash Ruins and the Cave Towers, there is signage, bathrooms and parking lots.
Hornsby attributes the difference in infrastructure between sites to the political push and pull of the last three administrations.
Nearing the end of the Obama administration, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a landmark group of Indigenous leaders from the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni Pueblo, Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, requested the declaration of a 1.9 million acre national monument at Bears Ears.
In 2016, Obama signed an executive order declaring a smaller portion of the land, 1.3 million acres, a monument.
In 2017, the Trump administration reviewed 24 national monuments for alterations and reductions. Four of those monuments were in Arizona, but none were affected.
Bears Ears was.
Trump downsized the monument’s boundaries by over a million acres, a roughly 85% reduction, which reopened lands to mineral withdrawal claims.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance says it has tracked at least 15 new claims on places previously within the national monument.
The acres excluded from the monument are overseen by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. BLM spokesperson Lisa Wilkolak confirms that seven new mining claims have been made on land managed by the bureau.
According to the alliance, the “Easy Peasy” uranium mine is believed to be the only site to see surface development.
“These mine claims and new developments are certainly not the same as a giant oil or gas drilling operation. Thankfully that hasn’t happened and hopefully it won’t,” said Kya Marienfeld, a wildlands attorney with the alliance. “But they do represent real, on-the-ground impacts that couldn’t have happened if the land had still had its protection as a monument.”
If Biden follows through with his campaign promise to restore the monument’s Obama-era boundaries, the future of these mines and claims will be uncertain.
“They do have a prior existing right now on the claims that have been made” Marienfeld said. “I’m not sure what that will do as far as development on many of the claims that have been staked but haven’t seen any surface disturbance or on-the-ground development.”
According to Marienfeld, it’s likely that the claims will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. The outcomes could vary.
“This is the first time that any tribes, much less five very different tribes, who often don’t see eye to eye on things, came together and asked the federal government for this protection,” Marienfeld said. “To have that taken away is just a slap in the face.”
Woody Lee, executive director of the Utah chapter of the group Diné Bikéyah, called Trump’s decision to reduce the monument “crushing.”
“Nothing is guaranteed in politics,” Lee said. “Our prayers continue to be said and we are hopeful that Biden will fulfill his promises.”
According to Lee, the confirmation of Deb Haaland as Interior secretary has bolstered hopes the monument will be restored. Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, is the first Native American person to hold this office.
The ongoing debate surrounding Bears Ears seems to be an issue Haaland wants settled.
In early April, within the first month of her tenure, Haaland visited southern Utah to speak with tribal leaders, politicians and locals about the monument.
Haaland’s visit to review the monuments at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante was initiated by one of Biden’s first executive orders, which called for the evaluation of Trump-era decisions that may conflict with the president’s objectives for environmental and national monument protection.
The recent visit and flood of national attention has given some tribal members hope for more than just a reinstatement.
“My main hope is the monument is restored to its original Obama intent and beyond,” said Clark Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe Council and the co-chair of the inter-tribal coalition. “But if the full 1.9 million acres is installed, that would mean zero possibilities for sites being left unprotected outside the area.”
Wilkolak said the bureau has been working to improve infrastructure and visitor experiences for many years, before and since the designation of the original national monument in 2016.
“The BLM is committed to ensuring the responsible management of monument resources and the surrounding areas,” Wilkolak said. “BLM Utah does not have the authority to modify national monument boundaries, nor do we plan to speculate about any future actions.”
With his prayers said, Lee eagerly awaits for those “future actions,” fervently hoping those decisions will be to his favor.
“If you sit quietly in the canyons you can hear medicine men chanting, the children playing,” Lee said. “We have been here since the beginning of time. We want to be here and we will always be here. We want to save these for those grandkids, not just our grandkids, but all the grandkids.”
Monuments and the Antiquities Act
The Bears Ears debate stems from the power given to the president by the Antiquities Act, which allows the president to “declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments.”
Since the president had the power to create monuments, the Trump administration interpreted that it also gave the president the ability to reduce monuments.
No other president has ever acted on this interpretation on the scale Trump did at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, said John Leshy, professor of law at UC Hastings, who previously taught at Arizona State University’s College of Law.
A cascade of lawsuits from tribes and environmentalists followed the reduction. If Biden reinstates the monument, Leshy say the federal government may never decide the legality of Trump’s decision.
“There are no court cases that can answer that question because no president ever shrunk a monument in a significant way before,” Leshy said. “We don’t have a definitive legal answer to that question.”
Leshy was a senior official in the solicitor’s office within the Department of Interior during both the Clinton and Carter administrations. His book, “Our Common Ground,” details the political history of public lands and is set to be published by the end of next year.
Within the next few months, Leshy hopes to see the end of the “ping-pong effect” in regard to these designations. He believes a continued back and forth between administrations could set a dangerous precedent.
“If Biden reinstates the monuments then the litigation goes away and we may never have an answer,” Leshy said. “The path is open for Biden to do that, but the path is also open for a future Trump to come in and start taking a machete to existing monuments.”
The only way to reach a permanent conclusion, Leshy says, would be for Congress to pass legislation that restricts how future presidents can use the Antiquities Act.
Leshy says that push for legislation would most likely have to begin with the congressman, Rep. John Curtis, who represents the district in southern Utah that is home to Bears Ears.
During the Interior secretary’s visit, Curtis spoke openly about how if Biden decides to reinstate the monument it’s likely to be rescinded by a future president. Curtis has asked Haaland to delay the monument decision and hopes the final call will be left to the locals.
For now, it seems, the ammo can will remain.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.