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 â Before committing to the motion, Zion White cautiously checks where he plansÂ to place his hand, trying to avoid the Native American petroglyphs heâs there to document.
âWhen 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,â said White, a member of the Fort Yuma Quechan Tribe. âNow, Iâm here doing the exact same thing to preserve our history.â
With his hand carefully positioned, WhiteÂ steadies himself and silently shimmies down the side of a boulder.
âTry not to wake the bees,â he whispers, pointing at a pile of honeycombs littering a crack in the cliff face. âLast time, we couldnât finish documenting this site because of them.â
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 keepsÂ going.
The location heâs 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.Â Some say this isÂ the highest concentration of documented petroglyphs in the state.
The combination of features,Â like petroglyphs, geoglyphs and trail networks,Â and the landscape’s significance to the origin stories of several Native American tribes haveÂ led to multiple attempts to haveÂ the area, also known as the Great Bend of the Gila, declaredÂ 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 â the sixth-highest total in the country âÂ these attempts have failed.
Over the past four years, the former Trump administration refused, reconsidered and reduced proposalsÂ to protect public lands across Arizona and the Southwest,Â easing restrictions on mining, visitation and grazing.
The actions disappointed conservation advocatesÂ but came as aÂ relief to some politicians and ranchers who believe the use of public lands should remain uninhibited and that more restrictions only limitÂ local economies.
With a new president and aÂ new Interior secretary in place andÂ progress on proposals likeÂ a permanent ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon,Â activists and archaeologists are once again renewing their efforts toÂ protect millions of new acres around the Southwest.
Tribal coalitions and environmental organizations say these choices and changesÂ are long overdue.
During his campaign, President Joe Biden promised to reinstate Barack Obama-era protections removed byÂ Donald TrumpÂ in placesÂ like Bears Ears National Monument, and to prioritize the conservation of culturally significant tribal lands.
The legal back-and-forthÂ over the three administrations has left federal land agencies, local environmental groups and tribal coalitionsÂ unsure of what happens next.
Archaeologists say itâs a costly delay because, to them, the push for prioritizing conservation on public lands isÂ a ârace against time.â They believeÂ the population boom and urban sprawl leaves these landscapes vulnerable to development, destruction and, ultimately, being âloved to death.â
The Great Bend of the Gila
Geoglyphs line the mesaâs edge in the desert southwest of Phoenix, only distinctly visible when within kicking distance of the stones.
Trail networks interweave across the mesaâs top, hardly noticeable under the heat haze, easy to miss and even easier to disturb.
Petroglyphs adorn boulders toppled over the mesaâs side, naturally protected by the rugged terrain and the bee colonies White is trying to avoid.
âIâm 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 weâre trying to preserve,â White said. âItâs what our people left. Itâs the history they put down and remembered.â
White is one of several tribal members working with Archaeology Southwest to document petroglyphs in the Great Bend of the Gila,Â along a river that crosses Arizona from one border to the other.
âItâs important that the original people and inhabitants of these lands are part of these projects because itâs our history that weâre recording,â White said. âWeâre bringing in a lot of data that will help individuals understand how much is out here and what needs to be protected.â
There have been three attempts to create a national monument at the Great Bend of the Gila. Rep. RaÃºl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.,Â chairperson of the HouseÂ Natural Resources Committee, introduced the original Great Bend of the Gila National Monument Establishment Act in 2013. He reintroduced it in 2016Â andÂ again in 2018.
None of the attempts succeeded, but Archaeology Southwest is working to reimagineÂ how to increase conservation regulations across this landscape for a fourth and whatÂ it hopes will be aÂ 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.
âArchaeological sites are often managed based on their significance,â Wright said. âFor aÂ placeÂ to merit protection in current federal legislation, it has to meet a certain significance threshold. The number of petroglyphs, their current state andÂ this sort of baseline informational data points, are used to make those assessments.â
While âtribal communities have other ways to measure significance,â Wright says land managers speak in the âlanguage of numbers.â
After an initial evaluation, Wright says the siteÂ 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” andÂ âreflect the overall density of petroglyphs in the Great Bend of the Gila,” according to Wright.
âPeople know there are petroglyphs out there. But they donât know how many, they donât know what they look like and they donât know their condition,” Wright said. “We provide a baseline understanding of what is there.â
Detailed notes are painstakingly taken on observations:Â its âproduction technique,â direct or indirect percussion, scratched, abraded or re-pecked; its âcondition,â natural damage, gunshots, graffiti, broken or buried; its “intensity,” light, medium or heavy.
The list goes on for several pages.
âDocumenting their condition really helps land managers in deciding how to manage, what to manage, when to manage and what resources go into that,â Wright said. âPeople can love petroglyph sites to death. Even well-intentioned people leave an impact on the landscape.â
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 agencyâs 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.
âThere are a lot of parts of the Lower Gila that havenât really been studied in very much detail,â said Cheryl Blanchard, an archaeologist with the field office. âWe havenât had the attention paid to some of these sites and resources out there. SoÂ itâs wonderful weâre 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.â
As of 2021, the majority of the land is considered an area of critical environmental concern. In Arizona, there are more than 931,500 acresÂ across 60 parcels of land under thatÂ designation, according to public data from the bureau.
âIt doesnât rise to the level of protection of say a wilderness, where you canât even use vehicles, but it does allow us to be a little more particular about what uses are considered for that area,â Blanchard said. âIt just raises it on the radar screen a little bit higher.â
WhileÂ 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. Thatâs why the organization is pushing for landscape protection that cannot.
âWeâre looking for a permanent designation for protection of the area to preserve the landscape and the heritage that is tied to it,â 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:Â âUnder 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. SoÂ a conservation emphasis would allow them, legally, to put more energy and focus into managing for conservation.â
These efforts, he said, are âa race against time.â
âWeâre 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,â Wright said. âThese are pressures on sensitive areas.â
Blanchard says she âcanât even begin to guess” whether politicians would support a change in theÂ land’s allocation orÂ designation,Â though she said there is a high barÂ to reach for wilderness area protection. According to Blanchard, the acreage and roadless criteria are among the hardest to meet, especially in placesÂ like the Lower Gila that have private land sprinkled in.
âIn terms of history, when people were looking at areas to designateÂ as wilderness, they had a number of different areas to entertain, but not all of them made the cut,â Blanchard said. âI can see why the area along the Lower Gila might not have met that particular requirement.â
An influx of public lands initiatives after the inauguration of a new president is a phenomenon Blanchard has seen before. She is notÂ surprisedÂ that organizationsÂ like Archaeology SouthwestÂ are reupping their efforts and she notes thatÂ transition periods between administrations often comes with a series of new initiatives.
Since joining the bureau’s Phoenix DistrictÂ in 1984,Â Blanchard has served seven U.S. presidents. Sheâs noticed how the transition periods between administrations often comes with a series of new initiatives.
âEach administration is going to have its own emphasis. Itâs going to have its own things it likes to push forward or back off of,â Blanchard said. âAs 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.â
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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 paintedÂ sideÂ of each piece. Then he taps them together, listening intently.
âProbably classic period,â 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.
âIf 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,â Doelle said. âGetting protective infrastructure in place sooner is going to make it easier for people to visit these places respectfully.â
In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison signed an executive order to protect the Casa Grande ruins, along with the surrounding 480 acres,Â making it the nationâs first federally protected archaeological site. Doelle hopes this history of preservation will pull through in todayâs politics.
âRight now, weâre protecting standing structures, and thatâs great, but this entire landscape is significant to some tribes,â Doelle said. âWe need to have a more holistic approach to preservation.â
A study from Archaeology Southwest traced the landâs 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 OâHalleran, D-Ariz., introduced a bill that would haveÂ expanded the monumentâs boundaries. Like the original efforts at the Great Bend of the Gila, his bill failed.
âWeâre trying to preserve the history of not just Indigenous people, but the history of America, the history of the West and itâs an ongoing process,â OâHalleran said. âWhether itâs museums or setting aside lands with significant historical value, these are important aspects of our future generation.â
OâHalleran believesÂ the monumentâs expansion will increase the positive economic impact the site has had on nearby communities, like Coolidge.
AÂ 2018Â 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.
OâHalleran said heâs ready and willing to support a renewed effort to extend the monumentâs boundaries. With âa change in leadershipâ in the White House and after speaking to members of Bidenâs legislative team, OâHalleran said the administration is far âmore open to addressing Indigenous areas and setting those aside, especially when they have such a significance.â
Doelle is approaching this renewed effort on two fronts. Archaeology Southwest is also working withÂ the Office of Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz. Nick Matiella, a senior legislative assistant for the senator, confirmed that Kelly intends to fileÂ a bill by the end of April to expand the monumentâs boundaries.
Ben Littlefield, the superintendent of the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, declined to comment other than to confirm the National Park Service was awareÂ of the bill, but hadÂ not given testimony for theÂ 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 orÂ overseen byÂ the Bureau of Land Management.
DeGanahl,Â who sits onÂ the board of theÂ Arizona Cattle Growers’ AssociationÂ and works on that organization’s federal lands team,Â passionately disagrees with the process that’s led to thousands of acres across the Southwest beingÂ set aside for national monuments.
âEvery time a rancher gets kicked off by a national monument, or whatever other designation, there is less management of that land,”Â DeGanahl said. âIf the users are gone, thereâs less management. Weâre out there every day monitoring grass and water levels, and oftentimes weâre the only people put there. There are recreationalists, hunters and BLM officials but theyâre not there every day.â
TheÂ Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives the president executive power to declare national monuments, has been misused to cover what DeGanahl says isÂ “far too much land.” Monument designations limit the ways the public can utilize the land. ThisÂ 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, areÂ what DeGanahl says should be the norm.
âA couple hundred acres around a Native American ruin, thatâs fine. Thatâs exactly what national monuments were designed to do,â DeGanahl said. âBut when you go in and declare thousands and thousands of acres a national monument, youâve gone overboard. Thereâs already national parks for that. If you want that protected, fine, but you have to go through Congress.”
The president’s ability toÂ useÂ executive orders to declare national monumentsÂ is completely unfair, according to DeGanahl.
âAt least if it goes up in Congress, I can call my congressman and ask them to argue against it,â DeGanahl said. âBut most of these national monuments are done with executive orders.Â All the president has to do is sign a paper and no never mind what the locals think.â
DeGanahlâs 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.Â And in a few decades, DeGanahl hopes to see his two grandkids take part in ranching as well.
âWhy 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?â DeGanahl asked. âThese monuments mean less management. The BLM canât manage what they have already. WhenÂ you kick off the user, like ranchers who have a vested interest in that land, you’re making the land less sustainable.”
âThe impact of these national monuments is not good because the rancher manages these lands far more constantly than the BLM ever does,â DeGanahl said. âThe day-to-day management is done by the users and if you kick them off, well, it just becomes unmanaged.â
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Bears Ears National Monument
A gentle flurry of snowflakes coats a downed treeÂ by the entrance of the Monarch Cave and aÂ rusty chain holds an ammunition canisterÂ 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, piecesÂ of a spiral notebook for visitors to sign and a dark blue dog leash.
âOh, we put that there,â said Britt Hornsby, a field director with the Friends of Cedar Mesa, referring to the leash. âJust to help keep dogs from peeing on the site.â
The foot-long canister, used to provide information in a low-profile way,Â 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 monumentsÂ 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’sÂ 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 âroadÂ shows,â piles of Native American artifacts, like pot shards and corn husks, put on display by visiting tourists. Itâs a practice many environmentalists and archaeologists decry.
“Give me just a second,” Hornsby says, kneeling to strategically disperse and buryÂ theÂ 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 variesÂ across the monument.Â At the Monarch Caves, there are ammo cans and posts. At the Butler Wash Ruins and the Cave Towers, there is signage,Â bathrooms and parking lots.
Hornsby attributes the difference in infrastructureÂ 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 administrationÂ reviewed 24 national monuments forÂ alterations and reductions. Four of those monuments were in Arizona, but none were affected.
Bears EarsÂ was.
Trump downsized the monumentâs boundaries by over a million acres, a roughly 85% reduction,Â 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 monumentÂ 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.
âThese mine claims and new developments are certainly not the same as a giant oil or gas drilling operation. Thankfully that hasnât happened and hopefully it wonât,â said Kya Marienfeld, a wildlands attorney with the alliance. âBut they do represent real, on-the-ground impacts that couldnât have happened if the land had still had its protection as a monument.â
If Biden follows through with his campaign promise to restore the monument’s Obama-era boundaries, the future of these mines and claims willÂ be uncertain.
âThey do have a prior existing right now on the claims that have been madeâ Marienfeld said. âIâm not sure what that will do as far as development on many of the claims that have been staked but havenât seen any surface disturbance or on-the-ground development.â
According to Marienfeld, itâs likely that the claims will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. The outcomes could vary.
âThis is the first time that any tribes, much less five very different tribes, who often donât see eye to eye on things, came together and asked the federal government for this protection,â Marienfeld said. âTo have that taken away is just a slap in the face.â
Woody Lee, executive director of the Utah chapter of the groupÂ DinÃ© BikÃ©yah, called Trump’s decision to reduce the monument âcrushing.â
âNothing is guaranteed in politics,â Lee said. âOur prayers continue to be said and we are hopeful that Biden will fulfill his promises.â
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 issueÂ 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 reviewÂ 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 recentÂ visit and floodÂ of nationalÂ attention has given someÂ tribal members hopeÂ for more than just a reinstatement.
âMy main hope is the monument is restored to its original Obama intent and beyond,â said Clark Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe Council and the co-chair of the inter-tribal coalition. âBut if the full 1.9 millionÂ acres is installed, that would mean zero possibilities for sites being left unprotected outside the area.â
Wilkolak said the bureauÂ 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 authorityÂ 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,â Lee said. âWe 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.â
Monuments and the Antiquities Act
The Bears Ears debate stems from the power given to the president byÂ the Antiquities Act, which allowsÂ the president toÂ âdeclare 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.â
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 hasÂ ever acted on this interpretation on the scale Trump did at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, saidÂ John Leshy, professor of law at UC Hastings, who previously taught at Arizona State Universityâs College of Law.
A cascade of lawsuits from tribes and environmentalists followed the reduction. If BidenÂ reinstates the monument, Leshy say the federal government may neverÂ decide the legality of Trumpâs decision.
âThere are no court cases that can answer that question because no president ever shrunk a monument in a significant way before,â Leshy said. âWe donât have a definitive legal answer to that question.â
Leshy was a senior official in the solicitor’s officeÂ within the Department of Interior during both the Clinton and Carter administrations. His book, “Our Common Ground,” details the political history of public landsÂ 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 âping-pong effectâ in regardÂ to these designations. He believes a continued back and forth between administrations could set a dangerous precedent.
âIf Biden reinstates the monuments then the litigation goes away and we may never have an answer,â Leshy said. âThe 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.â
The only way to reach a permanent conclusion, Leshy says,Â would be for Congress to pass legislation that restrictsÂ how future presidentsÂ can use the Antiquities Act.
Leshy says that push for legislation wouldÂ most likelyÂ have to beginÂ with the congressman,Â 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 itâs 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 canÂ 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 andÂ @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.