For the third time in less than five years, a U.S. Interior secretary has traveled to Utah’s San Juan County to investigate where to set the ever-fluid boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument.
The debate over where to draw those lines continues to divide residents and ripple across the state’s political landscape — even as the fragile region has become inundated with curious and, at times, careless visitors.
In all instances, including Deb Haaland’s trip last week, the outcomes of these inquiries, all ordered by presidents, seemed more or less preordained. Several tribes are pressing Haaland to urge President Joe Biden not only to restore the original Bears Ears boundaries — before they were slashed at the recommendation of Ryan Zinke, the last Interior secretary to tour the region — but also enlarge them to nearly 2 million acres.
“We still have cultural ties to this area. It is much like the Mormon temple up in Salt Lake City,” Clark Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe, told reporters Thursday in Blanding. “If you desecrate our shrines, our temples, down here, you are destroying our culture, our religion, our lifeline and our history of how we became part of this nation.”
By all accounts, Biden is listening to tribal voices and is poised to act.
While running for president last year, Biden promised to restore both of Utah’s large national monuments, which his Republican predecessor slashed by 2 million ares. Such a move would align with Biden’s “30 by 30” initiative aimed at protecting 30% of the nations lands and waters by 2030.
“As president,” his campaign wrote on its official website, “Biden will take immediate steps to reverse the Trump administration’s assaults on America’s natural treasures, including by reversing Trump’s attacks on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.”
Why Biden would enlarge Bears Ears
Following through on the pledge carries little political risk for Biden, who was vice president when President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to protect Bears Ears with a 1.35 million-acre designation in 2016. Utah, with all its redrock wonders, is a decidedly rock-red state on the partisan map and is unlikely to turn blue in the next election.
Enlarging the Utah monuments, on the other hand, would burnish Biden’s stature — and his green bone fides in left-leaning states — as a conservation-minded leader devoted to combating climate change and preserving what’s left of America’s treasured natural vistas.
Despite years of opposition to monument designations, Utah’s political leadership appears to be open — or at least resigned — to enlarged monuments as long as they’re yoked to a “legislative” resolution that would close the book on Utah’s monument controversies.
“There are better ways to take these shared landscapes and preserve them for generations to come and to honor the spirit of the people who have been here before and the people who are here now,” Gov. Spencer Cox said at Thursday’s press event he shared with Haaland. “All of those things can only be done through legislation. They can’t be done through an executive order. But that’s hard. That’s hard work. If it was easy, we would have done it already.”
Still, most observers anticipate Haaland will recommend expanding both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. The only questions are by how much and which excluded landscapes, such as Cedar Mesa and Valley of the Gods in the case of Bears Ears, would be returned to the monuments’ protective boundaries.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group representing the five tribes behind that original monument proposal, has urged the Biden administration to redraw the boundaries to align with the 1.9 million acres the tribes originally sought. The goal is to protect the archaeological resources and sacred sites that blanket this region, which, board member Tenakhongva warned, is coming under increased risk of looting and misuse.
The intertribal group — which includes the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute and Ute Mountain Utes — insists it has always been willing to collaborate with state leaders on a lasting solution.
“Where we can identify commonality, we’d like to go forward from there. That said, however, we would be remiss to not reflect on the relationship that the state of Utah has had with tribes, which at best has been acrimonious and subordinated against the interests of the state,” said Pat Gonzales-Rogers, the coalition’s executive director. “While we certainly want to engage in good faith and an earnest kind of dialogue, we do this with the reflection of history that does not paint a very good picture.”
As a New Mexico Democratic congresswoman in 2019, Haaland sponsored a bill that would have reset the Bears Ears boundaries at the 1.9 million acres.
Utah leaders have yet to outline a clear negotiating position for talks with the tribes.
“What the state and the delegation has presented so far is fairly vague,” Gonzales-Rogers said. They have to identify what is the acreage and boundary that they’re suggesting.”
Tribes may get more say in monument management
No one disputes that the 1906 Antiquities Act gives Biden the authority to honor the tribes’ request, which, unlike when then-President Donald Trump reduced the monuments, is now endorsed by a new Democratic-majority, Navajo-led San Juan County Commission.
Rather than quickly restoring the two shrunken monuments, Biden instead called for a review of their “management conditions.” That review is now being carried out by Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo.
“This is a historic moment. She’s the first Native American secretary of the Interior and she’s going to be meeting with, among other people, the San Juan County Commission, which is the first San Juan County Commission in history to have a Native American majority,” Dan McCool, a University of Utah political scientist, said before Haaland’s visit. “There’s a synchronicity there that has never occurred before. We have an unprecedented political situation in regard to empowering Native Americans. And we have an unprecedented situation with the creation, reduction and re-creation of a national monument. So all of this is brand-new territory.”
He predicts Biden ultimately will restore both monuments, perhaps with minor adjustments. Also in play is how the monuments are to be managed, and McCool anticipates important changes there as well.
“The original advisory board [for Bears Ears] was dominated by Native Americans, and Trump changed it so it was dominated by local Anglos,” McCool said. “I think they’re going to restore the dominance of Native Americans so that they have a much stronger voice in management of the monument.”
Under the order Biden signed the day he was inaugurated, Haaland is to submit a report summarizing her findings and providing recommendations for achieving the overarching goals of the order. She was on the ground over the last week, touring Bears Ears and Grand Staircase and meeting with Utah’s political leaders, tribal officials, ranchers, business owners, county commissioners and others.
“My job is to listen, to learn, to report back to the president of every single voice that I have heard on this trip to make sure that he has all the information he needs to make a decision,” Haaland said Thursday in Blanding. “...“It’s important that the president get this right.”
She noted that Biden’s next move must weigh not only the effect on current constituencies but also on future generations.
“I know that decisions about public lands are incredibly impactful to the people who live nearby and not just to us, not just to the folks who were here today, but for generations to come. It’s our obligation to make sure that we protect lands for future generations, so they can have the same experiences that the governor and I have experienced today.”
What about Grand Staircase?
While Bears Ears is monopolizing the public’s attention, the more-established Grand Staircase presents a different set of concerns. Haaland took up those issues Friday in Kanab, where she met with various stakeholders and county commissioners who are uniformly opposed to that monument’s restoration.
She was in the Grand Staircase region for several hours after spending a day and a half near Bears Ears, but Kane County Commission Chairman Andy Gant, a Republican, said he was pleased she took the time to visit.
”Utah has a unified message,” Gant said Friday, “and [Haaland and her staff] seemed genuinely concerned about our message. They probably came to the meeting thinking it was going to be a lot more contentious than it was.”
Meeting with Haaland alongside Sen. Mike Lee and other members of the Utah delegation and a handful of area ranchers, Gant said the group advocated legislation that would permanently address public lands conflicts in Kane and Garfield counties.
”We feel like this is the first time that we’ve had a bipartisan piece to this conversation,” he said, “which we’ve never had since the [Bill] Clinton era … [to craft] bipartisan legislation that everybody wins with. We’re pretty optimistic.”
Davina Smith, a Diné (Navajo) board member for the conservation group Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, also praised Haaland’s desire to listen.
”It was comfortable, it was trusting,” said Smith, who presented Haaland with a traditional ceremonial fan. “It was, in a sense, [like being] home because there is another Indigenous person sitting across from me, and especially when it’s a woman. We are a matrilineal society in our Diné culture. … It felt like I was just talking to a family member in a sense.”
Smith used her time in the meeting to speak about Indigenous ties to the monument.
“We need to acknowledge that these are the homelands of the Southern Paiute and Pueblo — Hopi — and Diné,” Smith said. She told Haaland a story about how the Grand Staircase region served as a refuge in the mid-1800s for Diné people fleeing forced removal from their lands by the U.S. government during a period known as “the Long Walk.”
Garfield County Commission Chairman Leland Pollock prefers the Grand Staircase and Bears Ears be handled separately, but for now it appears the fates of the two monuments are tightly interwoven.
As far as the outspoken commissioner is concerned, the reduced Staircase monument is still plenty big — at 1 million acres — covering lands that most agree deserve protection. The status quo offers a compromise with which he believes everyone should be able to live.
“People have a lot of fatigue with the monument. It’s working now,” Pollock said. “I don’t understand why you would want to go back to all that conflict and go back to something that wasn’t working.”
What’s now working for some, though, is not working for others.
Several business, science and environmental groups fear Trump’s redraw of the monument was surgically calculated to open the region’s vast energy deposits to mining and drilling. These groups are pressing Biden to return that monument to its original boundaries set a quarter century ago and later endorsed by Congress when it passed a bill to trade out all the state trust lands.
“This act of restoration is our nation’s best hope for safeguarding the invaluable life and history at home in this landscape,” argues Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, which has long celebrated that monument’s scientific values, from dinosaur paleontology to mind-boggling biodiversity featuring 660 species of bees and 2,600 species of plants.
“Legislative options will always be available,” board President John Holland said, “but what is urgent today is the restoration of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to its original boundaries. The boundaries were established for the sake of a good science and scientific exploration and discovery.”
Utah Republicans are willing to deal
President Bill Clinton designated Grand Staircase back in 1996, and Obama created Bears Ears in 2016. A year later, Trump whacked down both. Biden is poised to expand them. So what should we expect to see the next time a Republican is in the White House? Will the larger monuments just be made smaller again?
The main argument Utah’s Republican leaders are making to Biden, to environmentalists, to tribes and anyone else who will listen is that this “pingponging” doesn’t serve anybody. And the only way to stop it for good is to do the hard work of getting a bill through Congress.
At this point, Democrats hold a narrow majority in the House and Senate, so Utah’s leaders know that to get any deal, they’ll have to bend — and in a big way. That means Bears Ears and Grand Staircase would get much larger than the narrow borders set by Trump.
“I, for one — and I’m sure it’s true of the other members of the delegation as well — would be open to expanding the national monument boundaries as they exist today and going much larger,” Sen. Mitt Romney recently told The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board. “Let’s look at what’s needed.”
The Utah Republican has urged the president to set a deadline for a grand compromise. If all of the involved parties can’t strike a deal on boundaries and land use decisions by a certain date, then Biden could still invoke the Antiquities Act to redraw those lines as he sees fit.
That’s similar to what happened in the waning months of the Obama administration, when then-Rep. Rob Bishop was working on what he called the “public lands initiative,” a deal he hoped would head off the creation of Bears Ears National Monument. That legislation failed to gain the support of Obama’s land managers.
Can a polarized Congress really fix this?
Romney, Utah’s five other GOP members of Congress and the state’s elected leaders hope that, by negotiating, they can carve out more expanded land uses on some parcels, allowing grazing or hunting or motorized access.
At this stage, it is unclear that environmentalists, San Juan County commissioners or tribal leaders would be interested in such a negotiation. It’s not clear the Biden administration is interested either.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said the delegation is ready to consider all options.
“That isn’t possible if they don’t agree to sit down with us and work on a permanent legislative solution, though,” he said. “I’m not resisting the expansion of these monuments for the sake of it, as we all recognize Utah has some places that are appropriate for monuments. I’m resisting the limitation of Utah’s voices, resources and opportunities. These are massive areas of land, and Utahns deserve a say in how they’re allocated.”
And for any legislative deal to work, all sides would have to agree to some sort of exemption to the Antiquities Act, which would bind the hands of future presidents.
Sen. Mike Lee long has pushed to deal out all of Utah from this act, which allows presidents to unilaterally create national monuments. He’s made little headway, though there is a precedent. Congress has exempted Wyoming from the Antiquities Act and required lawmakers to sign off on any designation in Alaska above 5,000 acres.
Lee and Romney voted against Haaland’s confirmation as Interior secretary, citing her antipathy to resource extraction on public lands.
McCool and others detect a whiff of hypocrisy in Utah’s current position.
After Trump’s ascension to the White House in 2017, none of these leaders sought a legislative solution or negotiation. Powerful longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch carried the most clout and Lee led the charge, asking for and receiving a major reduction to both monuments at the stroke of Trump’s pen with great fanfare at the Utah Capitol. Several tribes and environmental groups are challenging this move in five consolidated lawsuits pending in U.S. District Court.
The suits contend Trump overstepped his authority under the Antiquities Act, which many legal scholars doubt would authorize a president to reduce monuments designated by a predecessor.
If federal Judge Tanya Chutkan invalidates Trump’s order, the monuments would revert to their original boundaries, though such a ruling would likely be appealed and could wind up before the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, all eyes are on Deb Haaland as she wades through her first major task as overseer of America’s vast stretches of public lands and the precious resources they hold.