Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments may soon be enlarged.
Acting on a pledge he made as a candidate, President Joe Biden on Wednesday initiated a first step toward restoring the boundaries of the two formerly large Utah national monuments that Donald Trump had reduced by 2 million acres as a political favor to Utah politicians.
Within the first few hours of taking the oath of office, the White House said the new president signed an executive order calling for, among other moves safeguarding the environment, a review of the boundaries set for Bears Ears, designated by President Barack Obama in 2016, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996. Biden’s order highlights the impermanence and perhaps futility of Trump’s gesture that severely shrunk those boundaries, currently the subject of five consolidated lawsuits that may soon be rendered moot.
Biden’s order directs federal agencies to identify and take steps toward reversing any executive actions implemented by Trump that are “harmful to public health, damaging to the environment, unsupported by the best available science, or otherwise not in the national interest.” Included under that order are specific instructions “to protect our nation’s treasures by reviewing the boundaries and conditions” of the Utah monuments, place a moratorium on all oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, revoking approval for the Keystone XL pipeline and re-establish an interagency working group exploring the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change.
As his second term was winding to a close, Obama established the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears monument at the request of five American Indian tribes with ancestral ties to the lands in San Juan County surrounding the distinctive and aptly named Bears Ears Buttes. As sovereign governments, the tribes unsuccessfully pushed the Trump administration to reconsider its decision to cut the monument by 85%.
They have received a more welcome reception with the Biden transition team, which was already prepared to resume government-to-government consultations with sovereign tribal leadership regarding Bears Ears, according to Patrick Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition, formed by the five tribes in 2015 to advocate for the monument. Gonzalez-Rogers believes the monument should be redrawn to encompass the tribes’ original 1.9 million-acre proposal.
“Consultation is the administrative duty of the federal trust responsibility, and so that will create the first path on how we go forward,” he said. “The tribal leadership is very excited about working with the Biden administration, and we hope to resume a more normal kind of federal trust relationship in which we really emphasize government-to-government relationships.”
Any monument review would be headed by Biden’s pick for Interior Secretary, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo who refers to herself as a 35th-generation New Mexican. If confirmed, she would be the first Native American to serve in a Cabinet post.
Biden’s order directs the secretary to submit a report within 60 days summarizing the review’s findings and providing recommendations for achieving the overarching goals of the order.
Both monument designations had upset Utah’s political leaders who saw them as federal overreach that defied the interests of the state and the wishes of most Utahns. That resentment has passed onto the state’s current generation of leaders.
Utah’s new governor, Spencer Cox, is pushing for “local management” of Utah’s public lands, according to the “roadmap” to his first 500 days in office, released on Tuesday. The document includes “opposition to the expansion of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.”
Utah’s entire all-Republican congressional delegation and state elected leaders were quick to oppose Biden’s order for a monument review, issuing a joint statement insisting it is “imperative” that Biden “work with state and local elected leaders toward a consensus product, including a permanent solution approved by Congress.”
Utah has been the focus of “divisive unilateral national monument decisions” for the past quarter century, according to the delegation’s statement, which Cox, Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and House Speaker Brad Wilson also signed.
“Roughly two-thirds of our backyard belongs to the federal government, which has meant land management actions have often been done to us rather than with us. A review in name only with predetermined results, which ultimately leads to a unilateral executive order enlarging the monuments’ boundaries, will not solve the root of the problem and will only deepen divisions in this country,” reads the statement. “President Biden championed a message of unity during his campaign, and we stand ready to work across party lines towards a permanent solution.”
Adams, the state Senate president, said Wednesday that he hopes Biden will seek “common ground” while deciding how to move forward, an unlikely prospect given the extreme polarization surrounding Utah’s monument battles.
“We would sure welcome that. We hope it wouldn’t be like some presidents who have stood in Arizona and looked at Utah from afar and actually created a monument from outside of the state,” he told reporters, referring to Clinton’s decision to use Grand Canyon for a backdrop when he signed the order creating the Staircase monument in a surprise announcement. “So whatever [Biden] does, we hope it’s collaborative and we look forward to that collaborative process.”
Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said those in southern Utah are “pretty anxious” because they have been “pretty comfortable with the boundaries that have been set under the Trump administration.”
“We just hope, like the president [Adams] says, that it’s a collaborative process and the administration involves local government and local entities and people that are interested, not just one side,” he added.
The Antiquities Act, the 1906 law that empowers presidents to designate monuments on public lands, does not obligate Biden to collaborate with local authorities or seek congressional approval should he decide to restore the Utah monuments, according to University of Utah law professor John Ruple.
“That’s not the law,” Ruple said. “I suppose one can argue that there’s a better way to do these things, but that’s not what’s required under the Antiquities Act.”
To a large extent, the two monuments were designated as a result of Utah leaders’ refusal to engage on preservation proposals for the two regions, critics say.
“Frankly, Utah had a chance with the Public Lands Initiative to do something that was more collaborative [to prevent the Bears Ears designation] and they failed,” Ruple said. “So the fact that we as a state couldn’t make it happen doesn’t prevent the president [Biden] from using the authority that has been delegated to [the president’s] office for more than 100 years.”
The two former Democratic president invoked the Antiquities Act to set aside the original monuments, citing a need to protect the cultural artifacts, fossil resources and natural wonders embedded in those landscapes. The designations blocked future mineral development and limited motorized access, but allowed livestock grazing to continue.
Shortly after taking office in 2017, Trump dispatched his then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to Utah and other Western states to investigate whether 25 large national monuments should be “right sized.” Ultimately only the Utah monuments were reduced. In a ceremony at the Utah Capitol packed with cheering opponents of monument designations, Trump signed executive orders cutting the Staircase from 1.9 million to 1 million acres and Bears Ears from 1.3 million to 200,000 acres.
The move triggered lawsuits from the tribes, environmental groups and science societies seeking to invalidate Trump’s action. That case, which remains pending before a federal judge in Washington, D.C., challenges Trump’s premises that the Antiquities Act also empowers presidents to remove lands from national monuments.
There is no disputing that the Antiquities Act empowers Biden to restore either monument, with or without the collaborative process sought by Utah leaders.
The Bears Ears coalition, with represents the Navajo, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni and Hopi tribes, is already pressing the new administration on two fronts, according to Gonzales-Rogers.
“One that we return to the Obama boundaries [of 1.35 million acres],” he said, “and then two, in due course during this year, that we make a path towards the original proposal of 1.9 million acres.”
Local governments in southeast Utah, where Bears Ears is located, have recently come out in support of restoring that monument to its original boundaries. San Juan and Grand counties as well as the towns of Bluff and Moab passed resolutions requesting Biden take “immediate action” on the issue. Blanding and Monticello, the two largest towns near the monument, have continued to oppose its restoration.
— Reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.