Conservationists went before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals today, in a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice challenging the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) initial management plan for the Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monuments. The five conservation and historic preservation groups represented by Earthjustice seek to enforce the presidential proclamations creating these monuments, which require BLM to protect the monuments’ wildlife, scenic landscapes, solitude, and vast cultural resources, and which prohibit motor vehicle use off roads.
Grand Canyon-Parashant and Vermilion Cliffs National Monuments, designated in 2000, were among the first monuments to be managed by the BLM, and this case is one of the first challenges to the adequacy of a BLM national monument management plan.
"This case raises the most fundamental questions concerning what it means to be a National Monument," said Jim Angell, who will argue the case for the groups. "When President Clinton created the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, the explicit goal was to protect the area's unique and irreplaceable cultural resources—including Indian burial sites, rock art images, and ancient villages. Unfortunately, BLM adopted a management plan that the agency admits would allow many of these objects to be ruined and lost to future generations."
Both national monuments are on the Arizona Strip, north of the Grand Canyon. The Strip is one of the Southwest’s most remote areas, where some of the region’s most significant archaeological sites lie nearly untouched, and wildlife flourishes.
“In the four years since this lawsuit was first filed, BLM’s leadership at headquarters here in Washington has made enormous progress in strengthening their policies for the protection of cultural resources,” said Elizabeth Merritt of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Unfortunately those policies have not yet trickled down to the management of National Monuments such as these on the other side of the country. We hope the court will send this management plan back to BLM to give the agency a chance to do it right.”
Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument is noted for its rich human history and impressive natural landscape. Evidence of human use, dating back over 11,000 years, has been unusually well-preserved in the monument due to the area’s remoteness. This wildness has also helped maintain the monument’s outstanding wildlife and diverse landscapes, which bridge the divide between the low-lying Mojave Desert and the high Colorado Plateau. The rugged setting exposes a geological profile that spans two billion years and reveals the ancient record of the Grand Canyon region.
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument encompasses the Paria Plateau, a terrace framed by the 3,000-foot Vermilion Cliffs escarpment and containing the 2,500-foot deep Paria River Canyon. Like its neighbor to the west, this monument preserves the range of human history of the American Southwest—Ancestral Pueblo villages (including some of the earliest rock art in the region), and sites and artifacts connected with historic Spanish and Mormon parties who crossed through the area. The monument is also home to raptors, the re-introduced California condor, desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and mountain lions.
“The decisions in these land use plans represent an older version of the BLM where conservation took a back seat to industrial uses of the land,” said Phil Hanceford of The Wilderness Society, one of the conservation groups represented in this case. “With this lawsuit, we are challenging the agency to embrace its conservation mission by putting protection above other discretionary uses as required by the establishment of the monuments.”
In January 2009, this coalition of conservation groups sued to overturn the Bush-era management plans that allow destructive use of these national monuments. The lawsuit demanded that the BLM comply with the proclamations creating the monuments by revising the plans to implement more effective protection of the monuments’ historical and cultural resources and natural landscapes.
The groups claim that the plans contradict the proclamations by ignoring the impacts of wildlife habitat fragmentation and increased off-road vehicle use caused by more than 1,200 miles of newly-designated roads.
After the U.S. District Court in Arizona ruled against the plaintiffs in September of 2011, the plaintiffs filed an appeal before the 9th Circuit. If the appellate court decides that the lower court was wrong, it may return the case to the district court or directly to BLM for future action to revise the management plans.
Earthjustice represents The Wilderness Society, Arizona Wilderness Coalition, Sierra Club-Grand Canyon Chapter, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Grand Canyon Wildlands Council in the case.