What does a landscape contain, and how do you measure its richness? Is it just the soil beneath your feet and the vegetation that rises up and adds texture and even structure? What about the sky overhead and, of course, the naturalness and ecological integrity?
For many living along the East Coast, these are particularly difficult questions to answer as there are few large expanses of open, undeveloped landscapes, and light pollution blots out the starry night skies. But in the West, there are many undeveloped, unmarred, and unlit landscapes. Southern Utah offers some of the greatest stretches of public lands in the country, and while they might appear worthless at first glance, they are incredibly rich in resources.
In an interesting analysis of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, a trio of scientists has compared this 1.35-million-acre landscape to national parks across the West and come away with some conclusions that conservationists are using to push back against Utah politicians who have asked the Trump administration to abolish the monument.
"The value of this area in sustaining the ecological function and large, contiguous landscapes that also support high levels of biodiversity should not be underestimated," wrote Dr. Brett G. Dickson, Dr. Meredith McClure, and Christine M. Albano in their analysis.
The three, who work for Conservation Science Partners and produced the report for the Center for American Progress, compared Bears Ears to Arches, Canyonlands, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Yosemite national parks. Specifically, they compared all those units for night sky darkness, ecological intactness, ecological connectivity, mammal diversity, reptile diversity, rarity-weighted species richness, ecosystem type rarity, and vegetation diversity.
What they discovered was that Bears Ears, which is on U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands but which the National Park Service will provide management input on, scored:
- Higher than all the cited national parks in terms of dark night skies
- Higher than Arches and Yellowstone on ecological intactness
- Higher than Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Arches on ecological connectivity
- Higher than Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Arches on mammal diversity
- Higher than Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Yellowstone, and Yosemite on reptile diversity
- Higher than Yellowstone, Glacier, Canyonlands and Rocky Mountain on rarity-weighted species richness, which measures "species rarity and irreplaceability that identifies sites that contain critically-imperiled or imperiled species with restricted distributions."
- Higher than Grand Canyon and Yellowstone on ecosystem type rarity
- Higher than Grand Canyon on vegetation diversity
While word that the region of southeastern Utah encompassing Bears Ears has a higher mammal diversity than Yellowstone, known as the Serengeti of North America, seems surprising, Dr. Dickinson pointed out in an email that, "the data we used reflect that this part of the country does have higher diversity, and like many parts of the Southwest, much of this diversity would be in the small mammal 'category' (including bats). Small mammal diversity increases (as does their level of specialization) as you move southwest."He also noted that according to the National Park Service, Yellowstone contains 67 species of mammals and Glacier 71, while Grand Canyon contains more than 90 and Mesa Verde 74.
The report (attached below) also measured Bears Ears for its underlying mineral reserves, and concluded that the monument "is vulnerable to mineral resource, and oil and gas resource development given high development potential..."
"Deposits of uranium, and to a lesser extent, vanadium and copper, occur within the BENM. Historical mining of these resources in the lands surrounding the BENM have resulted in long-lasting legacies of soils, water, and air contamination, with serious impacts to human health," the researchers noted.
The report did not address the archaeological or paleontological resources of the landscape. However, in the past the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition has said there are more than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites in the region that encompasses the national monument. There's also a long record of cultural site looting in the region, another rationale pushed for establishment of the monument.
In arguing for national monument designation, the Center for American Progress said the 100,000+ number of cultural and archaeological sites in the Bears Ears region is eight times the number of known cultural and archaeological sites in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and Mesa Verde National Park combined.