Interior secretary urges Biden to enlarge Bears Ears, Grand Staircase, report says

Both Utah monuments were cut down drastically by President Donald Trump.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Bears Ears buttes, seen on April 10, 2021. The Washington Post reported that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is urging President Joe Biden enlarge Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is recommending President Joe Biden restore protections to two hotly dispute Utah national monuments — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante — to where they were before Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, reduced them, The Washington Post reported.

In a story Monday, The Post reported that Haaland is recommending full protections to those monuments and a marine reserve off the New England coast, preserving a total of 5 million ares of federal land and water. The Post attributed the information to two people who spoke to the paper on condition of anonymity, because Haaland’s confidential report has not been made public.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, in a brief statement Monday, said he was “disappointed” by Haaland’s reported recommendation.

“There’s a better way,” Cox said, “and I look forward to talking with the president about how to find a lasting solution that’s better for the land and everyone involved.”

Then-President Barack Obama declared Bears Ears a national monument in 2016, setting aside more than 1.3 million acres. Then-President Bill Clinton established Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996, at nearly 1.9 million acres.

Trump, in 2017, slashed both monuments; Bears Ears was reduced by 85%, while Grand Staircase was cut to about half its previous size. Trump’s decision has been challenged in court, though legal proceedings have been put on hold while the Biden administration deliberates.

Biden has not said whether he will follow Haaland’s recommendations. During his presidential campaign, however, he pledged to restore the Utah monuments.

In a letter sent to the White House last week, all six members of Utah’s congressional delegation requested a meeting with Biden before he decides whether to enlarge the monuments.

In a joint statement Monday, the delegation repeated that request for a sit-down and that Biden release Haaland’s report to the public before making a final decision.

“We also urge the administration to work with our delegation, as well as with state, local, and tribal leaders, to craft a permanent, legislative solution,” the statement said, “which we believe is the only path to resolving this long-standing issue and providing much-needed certainty to our communities.”

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson joined the congressional delegation in urging Biden to hold a meeting “to discuss the matter and find common ground in our shared interest of balancing land use with preservation.”

Saying in a statement that “Utah is unsurpassed in natural beauty and all Utahns hold a respect for our public lands,” the Kaysville Republican blamed the dispute over the monuments on Washington politics.

“Unfortunately, “ Wilson said, “decisions about how to best preserve that land, utilize it and allow public access to it are greatly limited by politicians, bureaucrats and special interest groups on the other side of the continent who want to use Utah to score political points.”

Of course, others delighted in the development.

In a tweet Monday, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental advocacy group, called The Post’s story “Great news!” The tweet then addressed Biden, saying, “over to you.”

Another environmental group, The Wilderness Society, tweeted that Biden should follow Haaland’s recommendation and “give these wild places the protection they deserve.” The group said Biden should go further, and expand the boundaries of Bears Ears beyond where Obama had set them.

Haaland visited Utah in April to see the monuments herself. She met with tribal leaders and local officials, as well as Cox and Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee. At the time, Haaland said, “it’s important that the president get this right.”

Cox said in April that the state “likely” would sue the federal government if Biden enlarges the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monuments without congressional approval.

In May, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — a group representing the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, and Zuni Tribe — mounted a six-figure ad campaign, buying full-page ads in The Post and The Salt Lake Tribune to urge Biden to “restore and expand” the Bears Ears monument.

— Tribune reporters Matt Canham and Bryan Schott contributed to this report.