To the cheers of Utah politicians and dismay of environmental and tribal groups, President Donald Trump swept into Utah on Monday and erased most of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National monuments — shaving 2 million acres from their boundaries and replacing them with five smaller monuments.

The historic move was swiftly met with a lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservation organizations and threats of another from American Indian groups, as opponents claimed the reductions are illegal and denounced them as potentially opening pristine lands to development. Protesters along Trump’s route and in downtown Salt Lake City shouted and waved signs opposing his changes, and for a time halted traffic.

Trump also used the three-hour visit, his first to Utah since becoming president, to tour Welfare Square, meet with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, promise to protect religious freedom — and urge Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch to seek another term, which might prevent a run by Trump critic Mitt Romney, a two-time presidential candidate.

But mostly, as Trump told supporters at the state Capitol, “I’ve come to Utah to take a very historic action, to reverse federal overreach and restore the rights of this land to your citizens.”

At the invitation-only Capitol Rotunda ceremony, he signed a proclamation to shrink Bears Ears, created last year by President Barack Obama, from 1.35 million acres to 201,876. The remnants were placed into two new monuments: Shash Jaa (Navajo for Bears Ears) at 129,980 acres and Indian Creek at 71,896 acres.

He signed a second proclamation to reduce Grand Staircase-Escalante — created in 1996 by President Bill Clinton — from 1.9 million acres to 1 million. It was replaced by three monuments: Grand Staircase at 209,933 acres; Kaiparowits at 552,034; and Escalante Canyon at 242,836. The protected areas are still larger than Rhode Island.

“Past administrations have severely abused the purpose, spirit and intent of the century-old law known as the Antiquities Act,” Trump said, referring to the law used by Clinton and Obama to create the monuments.

He said presidents are supposed to set aside in monuments only the smallest area necessary to protect important resources. Instead, he said, previous administrations put millions of acres into the monuments.

“Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington. And guess what? They’re wrong,” Trump said to cheers.

“The families and communities of Utah know and love this land the best, and you know the best how to take care of your land,” he said.

Trump said the “abuses of the Antiquities Act have not just threatened your local economies; they’ve threatened your very way of life” by limiting access to public lands.

Now, he said, “Public land will once again be for public use.”

Before the ceremony, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told The Salt Lake Tribune: “The president is delivering on his campaign promise to give the state and local communities a voice, which I think is absolutely important. Public lands are for public use and not for special interests.”

Trump’s order specifically authorizes grazing in the Bears Ears area as well as motorized recreation and American Indian gathering of wood and herbs, and it asks Congress to pass legislation to mandate co-management by tribal leaders.

Zinke was ordered by Trump to review all monument designations back to 1996 and recommend changes to six monuments. While Trump’s action was decried by environmentalists and tribal leaders as the largest withdrawal of land protections in U.S. history, Zinke said the move was needed to fix the “two cases of abuse” of the Antiquities Act.

None of the land removed from the former monuments will be sold or transferred, Zinke said; it will return to its previous status, as land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, wilderness or as a national forest. Congress should consider what additional designations make sense, he added, including the possibility of a national park in the region.

“There’s not one square inch of federal land that doesn’t remain under federal control,” Zinke said. “There’s not one square inch of an antiquity that loses protection.”

However, for example, coal deposits in much of the Kaiparowits Plateau could be tapped. Clinton originally created the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument largely to prevent that.

Raising the possibility of drilling and mining inside that monument’s former boundaries, 10 environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit in Washington, D.C., alleging the Antiquities Act does not allow presidents to diminish or rescind monument designations by their predecessors.

The groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said they aim to defend the former monument’s unique fossil record, its biodiversity and the landscape that has drawn tourists and invigorated southern Utah’s economy.

“The Trump administration has ignored overwhelming support for the monument. It’s a punch in the face to local businesses who support it, and all of us who treasure it,” said Shelley Silbert, executive director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness.

Other groups also are expected to file lawsuits, including the five tribes who pushed for monument status for Bears Ears — Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and the Ute Indian Tribe.

Brian Sybert, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, said the group plans to sue to stop Trump’s reductions.

“This is nothing more than political score settling from an administration that doesn’t seem to comprehend the extraordinary value these lands hold for Native American communities and all Americans,” Sybert said. “Make no mistake: the near elimination of these national treasures is beyond belief. These lands belong to the people, not corporate polluters.”

(Animated Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sources: U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop’s office
(Animated Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sources: U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop’s office

Zinke said the administration is on firm legal footing to change the boundaries, noting other monuments have been changed 10 times in the past.

“We were very careful to identify the antiquities and make sure that we followed the Antiquities Act,” Zinke said. “...It is clear in our judgment that the president has the authority. We didn’t do this in an arbitrary fashion.”

He also said he’s not concerned about a large increase in oil and gas exploration or coal mining.

“I’ve heard this argument about Bears Ears’ oil and gas; that’s a nefarious argument,” he said. “There are no oil and gas resources that anyone has reported in Bears Ears. It really is about multiple use and multiple use is grazing, timber management, recreation, being able to use in some places four-wheel drives.”

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said he believes the president’s action is legal — but is also “just the beginning.”

Bishop said, “The hard part starts now. It was easy to come to where we are today. Now we are going to have to up our game and put into statute the protections we are talking about today. It’s not that easy.”

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, convicted of leading a 2014 protest ride in Recapture Canyon, cheered Trump’s shrinkage of Bears Ears in his county, but also said he saw it as “a first down.”

Lyman added: “We’re looking for a touchdown. We need the Antiquities Act reined in so that we don’t just become a football punched back and forth in the monument debate. We’d like to see Congress act so we have certainty about the future.”

Bishop has filed a bill that would curtail a president’s power under the Antiquities Act, but so far has been unsuccessful in moving it forward.