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.
Just as President Donald Trump invoked the Antiquities Act to cut 2 million acres from the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monuments, Biden — assuming last week’s election results survive recounts and legal challenges — will hold the power to restore the monuments designated by two Democratic predecessors.
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.
Several American Indian tribes are asking the courts to reverse the order that reduced Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County by 85%.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden signaled he would do just that, while also prioritizing landscape conservation more broadly.
“On Day 1, Biden will also begin building on the Obama-Biden Administration’s historic conservation efforts by issuing an executive order to conserve 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030, focusing on the most ecologically important lands and waters,” states the Biden campaign’s website. “His administration will work with tribal governments and Congress to protect sacred sites and public lands and waters with high conservation and cultural values.”
This suggests even more Antiquities Act designations could be on the horizon for Utah and other Western states.
Against the wishes of Utah’s GOP political leaders, then-President Bill Clinton designated the Grand Staircase monument in 1996. Twenty years later, President Barack Obama designated the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears at the request of five American Indian tribes with ancestral ties to the lands surrounding the monument’s namesake twin buttes rising above Cedar Mesa.
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.
“We always prefer monuments come from Congress, particularly large ones,” Lehnardt said, highlighting the 200-acre Jurassic National Monument, designated by Congress last year in Emery County, as an example of how monuments can be created with public input.
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.
“What we’ve been encouraging all along is to restore at the earliest possible moment the 1996 Clinton version of the monument,” said Scott Berry, board vice president for Grand Staircase Escalante Partners. “We think it’d be wonderful, and we’d be saying thank you to the new administration.”
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.
“Without congressional action, we run the risk of the boundaries being constantly changed, the management plans being incessantly rewritten, and perpetual uncertainty for everyone who cares about the management of the land,” said Stewart, who lobbied hard for the Staircase’s reduction. “That’s why I introduced the Grand Staircase Escalante Enhancement Act, to make the current boundaries of the monuments permanent and, most importantly, to give Utahns a voice on how it will be managed.”
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.”
Soon after taking office in 2017, Trump ordered a broad review of all big national monuments designated since 1996, but in the end he shrunk only the two in Utah. Several environmental, science and tribal groups, including Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, filed lawsuits asking a federal judge to reverse the two orders, arguing the Antiquities Act does not authorize presidents to remove protections designated by a prior administration.
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."
Should the monuments be restored, Berry insisted the Bureau of Land Management should scrap its recently adopted management plans for the Grand Staircase and the 900,000 acres pulled out of the monument. And the new Bears Ears management plan should be replaced as soon as practical, according to Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa.
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.”