It’s About Science- You’re Kiddin’ Me (Bears Ears)

We all know that “science” is good and “politics” is bad, right? That’s if we don’t read in disciplines like sociology of science, or science policy studies (not “science”?).

As I noted recently, when journals that don’t usually talk about natural resource stuff start publishing things, there is usually some kind of political angle. Again, because “scientists” think a certain way (even if there were a poll of all scientists) that doesn’t make it “science.”

Of all things, Science has an op-ed (this one is an op-ed without cites) “Science and politics collide over Bears Ears and other national monuments.”

What’s the value of a national monument designation, aside from protection?

Frankly, it’s about money. Utah, like many states, has struggled to fund its own paleontology program. The state’s Bureau of Land Management office currently has just one paleontologist and two law enforcement officers. The national monument designation comes with a mandate for more funding for law enforcement, which means more eyes on the ground to keep fossil thieves at bay and more money for education “so that people know there are fossils out there,” Gay says.

If the question is “what is the best use of public resources for the BLM?” does anyone really think that that’s a “science” question? And as economists tell me, if it is a science question, wouldn’t economic and social sciences be involved? Does anyone who visits the BLM and FS lands out there not know there are fossils out there?

I did think it was interesting that the Monument Designation “comes a mandate for more funding for law enforcement”- hadn’t heard that before.

Do scientists think the land set aside in the Bears Ears National Monument is big enough to protect its treasures?
Not surprisingly, Obama’s order was a compromise. There’s a large region, called Red Canyon, that was dropped from the final monument boundary—it, too, contains a trove of Triassic fossils, Gay says. But mining companies are interested in its uranium deposits, and pushed successfully to exclude the canyon in the monument. Red Canyon has an existing mine, the Daneros Uranium Mine, which produces a concentrated form of uranium (known as yellow cake) to make fuel rods for power plants. The national monument designation would prohibit new mining operations, and the mine’s owner, Energy Fuels, is seeking to expand the mine from its current 2 hectares to about 19 hectares.

So scientists need the extra 17 hectares or about 42 acres of fossils out of 1,351,849 acres currently in the Monument?

But perhaps my favorite part is this history:

In July 2016, Representative Rob Bishop (R–UT), who is also the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources, and Representative Jason Chaffetz (R–UT) rolled out their Utah Public Lands Initiative, which included plans for what is now Bears Ears National Monument. However, the proposal, which promoted fossil fuel development in parts of the region and allowed motorized recreation, met with stiff opposition from both environmental and tribal groups, as well as from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Bishop and Chaffetz tried unsuccessfully to win House approval for their plan before President Obama made the announcement.

Apparently not ALL tribal groups (based on our own information here and other news stories) but what a surprise! The FS and BLM (executive branch agencies) supported the President’s designation!!

Sorry, Science, I’m a scientist, too, and I don’t agree 1) that land use determination are science questions, although they should be informed by scientific data, nor 2) with the values espoused in this article.


  1. I think this op-ed falls in the “whatever it takes” category to meet its objective. Perhaps a letter to the editor asking the question, “what was the purpose of this op-ed?” would illuminate whether science or policy was being pursued.

  2. Trump “directs the secretary to “review” 1) whether the monuments are of historic or scientific interest—and 2) whether the amount of land set aside is appropriate to meet this designation.” I hope that review includes scientists because 1) I think it’s appropriate for scientists to provide the facts:

    “Bears Ears preserves one of the best records in the United States of the middle to late Triassic, the era of the rise of the dinosaurs…. ‘”It’s one of the few places in the U.S. where we can directly document that huge faunal turnover.” Archaeologists have also long pushed for the Bears Ears designation, noting that it contains more than 100,000 archaeological sites,”

    And 2) to answer this question
    “Do scientists think the land set aside in the Bears Ears National Monument is big enough to protect its treasures?”

    “but what a surprise! The FS and BLM (executive branch agencies) supported the President’s designation!!” Maybe that’s true, but what the article said was the they opposed the Utah Public Lands Initiative and the development it would allow.

  3. Jon, I think there’s a legitimate question between (some?) “archaeologists want a monument” and “making a monument will protect sites.” And you don’t need to be an archaeologist to have an opinion. If, as proponents argue, designation will bring in a lot more people, then the sites might be in more danger of vandalism, unless people in the backcountry behave appropriately (what evidence do we have to support this claim?) or there’s lots more law enforcement (of hundreds of people in the backcountry) which comes from money from ????? other parts of the BLM and FS and what kinds of laws are not thereby not being enforced?

    When people do management activities archaeological surveys are conducted and sometimes things come to light that would otherwise not be discovered- and often protected from the action itself. Do the archaeologists who want the monument understand this? What assumptions are they making?

    I also wonder “Is there a source for this claim… “archaeologists want.?.” because it seems plausible, but my experience with scientists is that the only thing they agree about is more research funding for their discipline..;)

    “Science and policy” is an awkward concept because it means two different things that often get mixed up. Lots of times it means “policy about science” usually about budgets. It can also mean “using scientific information in making public policy.” We can do a thought experiment about that.. does the existence of fossils and archaeological sites require designations of no management? What would the people in Pennsylvania think? What would the people in England or Israel think? If “science” should drive management, then wouldn’t it be true regardless or ownership of the land in question?

    • The Eldorado NF might have as many cultural sites as Bears Ears, when you include historical sites with pre-historic sites. There’s also all those sites that have not yet been discovered yet, although they were actually ‘surveyed’. Back in the early 90’s, I was working on insect salvage sales. Our map showed the areas that had current archaeological coverage and this one big area was so thick with brush that I had a hard time believing that it was actually surveyed. I’m sure there are some dog-haired thickets that hide some sites, too.

  4. I am sorry to say that I don’t see where mankind has learned a whole lot from studying the past. And what it has learned includes a lot of supposition and we seem to never get around to applying the truths we garner. So, I respect the law, but I don’t see much sense in spending money to keep archeologists happy. If it were up to me, a taxpayer’s cost estimate with a statement of benefits would have to be prepared and it would have to be approved by the people every presidential election. We’d sure find out what the people want instead of being told by the advocates that we want it.

  5. “Do the archaeologists who want the monument understand this?” I don’t know what archaeologists learn, but let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that their training includes understanding of ways to manage their resource, and their effectiveness.

    Then, while I agree that anyone may have an opinion, some opinions are relevant in different ways than others. Expert opinions are necessary to understand the effects of a decision. Public opinion is also important, and for lands owned by everyone, the opinion of non-archaeologists anywhere about whether those effects are good or bad should be considered (those in England or Israel maybe a little differently). We ask the experts if protecting fossils requires designation of no management. We ask the public if that is acceptable. (I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the point is to “keep archaeologists happy.”)

    • Jon

      How do “We ask the public if that is acceptable”?

      I haven’t been notified as to how to vote on this nor, I suspect, have >99% of the voting age public. The first that I knew, it was a fait accompli – No one had a vote as to whether or not this specific item was acceptable. Unless everyone is notified to let their congressman know or where to vote then the resulting feeling is biased in favor of whatever group can drum up the most support which is generally driven by emotion rather than science. Until that happens we are only going to “keep the archaeologists” (professionals) “happy” or the naysayers whichever can influence the most politicians. Such thinking is exactly why many of our federal forests are torches waiting to be lit as the professionals & science have been overruled by the drumbeat of faux mantras.

  6. I was responding in the context of Sharon’s proposed “thought experiment.” Public input occurs for most agency decision-making (which as they always say, is not a “voting” process), but if you put it in the context of a national monument designation, where there was no public process, you have a point. But that’s the process we voted for through Congress around 1906, and we voted for a president in 2012 to make the decision. And I assume he didn’t get advice from only archaeologists.

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