Saturday, May 20, 2017

National Monuments, Paleo, and the Future

So Bears Ears is back in the news, along with every other national monument created under the Antiquities Act of 1906 for the last 21 years. Despite being a powerful conservation tool used by essentially every president since it was signed into law, its gains (especially, in a strange irony, with protecting traditional uses) have been called into question by a small minority of Americans who feel that national monuments pose some kind of existential threat to their person, family, or lifeway.

You may or may not have recently seen that President Trump recently issued an Executive Order setting up a review of the use of the Antiquities Act to create national monuments since 1996. Bookending this EO are two national monuments created with paleontological resources explicitly called out in their proclamations; Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument. These two monuments alone protect around 3 million acres of public lands with rock records that span virtually all of the history of vertebrate life on land. Their status as monuments has allowed scientific research to flourish (as in the case of GSENM) or is poised to allow scientific research to flourish (as is the case in BENM). This of course ignores the countless other scientific discoveries made in the nearly two dozen other monuments created under authority delegated to the president by the Antiquities Act; for our purpose here we are going to be focusing on the two monuments in Utah created since 1996 that include paleontology resources in their proclamation.
Map showing GSENM and some of its paleontological resources, created by David Polly for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was created by presidential proclamation in 1996 under President Bill Clinton. This new monument, and several others created at the time, were part of a new sweeping set of public lands classification changes encompassed in what is now the National Conservation Lands. Despite a dearth of fossils having been published from what is now GSENM it was suspected or known by some paleontologists that the outcrops in GSENM had yielded some novel animals (such as Parasaurolophus cyrocristatus) and the majority of possible fossil-bearing outcrops had not yet been explored. Reflecting this, the White House took steps to protect fossil resources.
Utahceratops gettyi skull from GSENM. Figure from Sampson et al., 2010
At present, over a dozen new dinosaurs have been described from the monument, with plenty more undergoing scientific write-up, publication, and review. Utahceratops gettyi, shown above, is just one of the thousands of spectacular fossil specimens that have been uncovered within GSENM, mainly from areas where detractors are hoping to remove monument protections.

Map showing BENM and some of its paleontological resources, created by David Polly for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
Bears Ears National Monument was created by President Barack Obama under the authority delegated to him by the Antiquities Act, just like Bill Clinton used 20 years earlier. Taking existing public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the USDA Forest Service, the new National Monument was created to safeguard traditional Native American cultural uses of the land, archaeological sites, and paleontological resources. Despite being a multi-year process that involved the state, land management agencies, local communities, various Native American tribes with ties to the region, and scientists like myself, this monument has been unceasingly attacked since the moment it was proclaimed with half-truths, lies, and an aggressive smear campaign by some of its more unprincipled detractors.
The oldest vertebrate tracks from Comb Ridge, BENM. From Gay et al., 2017.
In this climate of (some) local antipathy, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke came to visit Bears Ears and Grand Staircase. Some reports claim that he told local leaders that there would be some shrinking or rescinding of national monuments under review, including Bears Ears. If this is true, it would be a terrible tragedy, especially considering that these comments come before the public review period is even over!

Which brings me to the point of this blog. If you love science. If you love fossils. If you love public lands. You need to make your comments heard. This is especially important considering the comment period for Bears Ears is only open until May 26th, a ridiculously short period of time for people to comment!
Screenshot taken from at 9:32 AM MDT, 5/20/17
This is especially true considering that one of the only weekend days of the BENM comment period the site is down all day for maintenance! Not only is internet access spotty across rural Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, where there is lots of tribal support for BENM, but now the federal government has decided to have all-day maintenance on the comments site during one of the few weekend days that people may have time to write up comments or visit a location with internet access.

Once the site is back up and running this evening (if all goes according to schedule), please leave a comment in support of science and continuing protection for paleontological resources within BENM and all national monuments. I've included a draft of my comments if anyone is looking for a starting point.
Comment site:
Dear Secretary Zinke,
I am writing today in order to express my support for the national monuments currently under review by yourself and the Department of the Interior at the behest of President Trump. Not only do national monuments form a vital part of our nation's public lands, they provide meaningful and desperately needed protections for irreplaceable, scientifically valuable, and nationally significant paleontological specimens and research. Above and beyond what protections public lands have in place for fossil specimens, national monument status conveys additional scrutiny, and funding for research, education, and protection. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has produced dozens of scientifically important specimens since the monument was proclaimed in 1996; Bears Ears National Monument will do the same. Already scientists like myself are unearthing, studying, and publishing on amazing discoveries from within the monument. Reducing or rescinding the national monument status for BENM will irreparably hurt scientific efforts in the region and exposes these unique traces of the ancient past, that we all share as part of our national natural heritage, to damage and destruction by people who do not see a reason or find value in preserving and understanding the past. Fossil tell us about extinction and how environments change over time; the only evidence we have of many of these vast climatic shifts comes from the fossil record, including the Triassic-Jurassic transition within Bears Ears. I am calling on you and the Trump administration to fully support BENM and all other national monuments to the fullest extent and respect their existing boundaries under the authority they were proclaimed by powers vested in the President by Congress.
Robert J. Gay, paleontologist and educator
Please take the time and leave comments in support of our national monuments and paleontology within them.


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  2. Thanks for the blog post Rob!