Federal judge declines to dismiss Bears Ears lawsuit

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Arch Canyon within Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. A federal judge declined on Monday to dismiss lawsuits challenging President Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to reduce the monument’s size and cut it into two pieces.

A federal judge has turned down an attempt by the Trump administration to dismiss legal challenges to its 2017 decision to cut the size of Bear Ears National Monument in southern Utah.

In a three-page ruling issued Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutkan rejected the administration’s arguments that claims in three separate lawsuits over the Bears Ears decision, now combined into one, should be thrown out of court.

The ruling essentially means legal actions brought by Utah’s five American Indian tribes and several environmental, business and academic groups over the monument can proceed for now.

Trump officials had sought to challenge the legal standing of plaintiffs to bring the case, which seeks to overturn President Donald Trump’s Dec. 4, 2017, edict substantially reducing Bears Ears’ acreage and cutting it in two.

Attempts by The Salt Lake Tribune to reach parties to the lawsuit late Monday for additional comment were not immediately successful.

And while Chutkan did not rule on the question of plaintiffs’ legal standing as yet, she said in her ruling the court would benefit from additional arguments over their valid legal authority to bring the actions.

The judge also ordered attorneys for all sides to attend an Oct. 7 status hearing on “an expedited, coordinated schedule” for when additional legal briefs in the litigation would be filed.

Chutkan acknowledged her decision comes even as Trump officials have released revised management plans for Bears Ears, which is named for two defining buttes that resemble a bear’s head. Supporters of the original monument have warned those management plans could jeopardize the lands by unduly favoring development.

Trump’s proclamation reduced Bears Ears — created by former President Barack Obama in 2016 — from an original 1.35 million acres to 201,876 acres.

Proponents of the reduction say Obama acted unilaterally and unfairly in creating the original monument and that Trump’s proclamation righted that move. Critics say the move has usurped sacred tribal lands and authority while threatening treasured landscapes and a host of archaeological and historic resources.

Anticipating that a new version of the lawsuit would be filed, Chutkan set aside — at least temporarily — additional arguments that legal claims brought against Trump’s edict weren’t yet legally ripe for interpretation and that the Antiquities Act was enough to decide the matter.

Trump invoked the Antiquities Act, first passed in 1906, when, on a personal visit to Salt Lake City, he ordered the monument cut with a public signing of his proclamation. The tribes that originally proposed the monument and other groups sued, alleging presidents lack the legal authority to shrink monuments designated by their predecessors.

The three lawsuits over Bears Ears have been combined into one case while another combined lawsuit challenges Trump’s order reducing Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by half.

That southern Utah monument, originally declared at 1.9 million acres by former President Bill Clinton in 1996, was reduced by Trump to just over a million acres in 2017, at the same time as the Bears Ears proclamation.

Trump’s twin actions were criticized at the time as a favor to Utah’s political leaders, who have long opposed declarations of large-scale conservation areas by presidential edict within the state’s boundaries, rather than through a genuinely deliberative process.