With Joe Biden’s capture of the White House comes the likelihood that Utah’s two big national monuments will be restored to their original boundaries, reopening yet another front in the West’s public lands wars.
Utah’s Republican leaders had hailed Trump’s move in 2017 to slash the monuments. Absent a repeal of the Antiquities Act, however, that victory may prove to be little more than a mirage since that landmark 1906 conservation law authorizes any future president to put those large monuments back on the map.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden signaled he would do just that, while also prioritizing landscape conservation more broadly.
This suggests even more Antiquities Act designations could be on the horizon for Utah and other Western states.
In what was seen as a favor to then-Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, Trump reduced these monuments to 1 million acres and 202,000 acres, respectively. Regarding the future of Bears Ears, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert urged the incoming administration to not act unilaterally.
“We hope that in lieu of an executive order changing the status of the monument, a Biden administration would work with Utah and Congress to pursue a legislative resolution to Bears Ears that would give all stakeholders certainty about the size of the monument and provide actual law enforcement funding to protect the fragile antiquities it contains,” he said through spokeswoman Anna Lehnardt. The outgoing governor, whose tenure overlapped the entire Bears Ears political saga, stressed he hopes to see such an approach with both Utah monuments.
The reenlargement of the Grand Staircase monument would upset commissioners in Garfield and Kane counties, but plenty of area businesses and residents would celebrate the move.
But Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock, one of the loudest proponents of monument reduction, said reverting to the old Staircase boundaries would invite trouble and upset what he believes is now a working balance.
“What they really honestly need to do is not just talk to the radical folks from either side; talk to the middle,” said Pollock, who believes the monument is run better now even though it still covers a vast area.
“Trump could have put [the Staircase] down to what they did to Bears Ears, but it was a compromise to leave the scenic areas in that need to be managed more on a monumental level,” Pollock said. “What they’re doing now is really, really good. There’s still a million acres protected under this monument and if they want to tweak the plan, I’m sure they can do that or whatever.”
Regardless of who occupies the White House, no decision on the management of public lands can be final without the involvement of Congress, according to Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican whose Utah district includes Grand Staircase.
This sentiment was echoed by Utah Rep. John Curtis, whose district includes Bears Ears, arguing that Biden would violate his promise to be a president to everyone if he enlarges that monument through executive action.
“It’s also a continuation of the ‘pingponging’ back and forth with boundaries that is a symptom of misused presidential authority,” Curtis said. “For the last three years, I’ve worked hard to establish the trust needed with Native American tribes and local residents to bring long-term certainty to San Juan County through federal legislation.”
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, based in Washington, D.C., has yet to rule in the consolidated monument lawsuits, where both sides have briefed their arguments. Even if the issue becomes moot with the Utah monuments' restoration, Berry and others would like to see the court rule to settle the questions raised in the suits.
“There’s a fundamental issue about the power of the executive under the Antiquities Act," he said, “and if we’re not just going to have a situation in the future of flip-flopping monuments ... we’re going to need to get that question answered."
Whatever Biden decides to do with the monuments, both sides agree there needs to be finality. Even today, three years after Trump shrunk Bears Ears, the signs the BLM commissioned to mark the road entrances to the monument remain in storage.
“Bears Ears is an internationally significant cultural landscape and it deserves better than to be turned into a political football every election season,” Ewing said. Visitors are flooding Cedar Mesa, Valley of the Gods and other fragile lands stripped from Bears Ears, but the BLM lacks the resources to adequately manage that traffic.
“I certainly would hope that there are enough statesmen and women in the room to find a permanent solution that would bring some certainty for the land and for tribes and for local people,” Ewing said. “If we don’t do that, I fear that the land’s going to continue to be the collateral damage of the ongoing controversy and political battles.”