The White House on Thursday announced it will fully restore Utah’s two large national monuments that former President Donald Trump slashed by 2 million acres four years ago. President Joe Biden will sign executive orders Friday afternoon to expand Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, which were designated by previous presidents to protect lands sacred to Native Americans and filled with natural and scientific wonders.
“By restoring these national monuments, which were significantly cut back during the previous administration, President Biden is fulfilling a key promise and upholding the longstanding principle that America’s national parks, monuments, and other protected areas are to be protected for all time and for all people,” the White House statement said.
The move drew praise from tribal and environmental leaders, but also a quick and stern rebuke from Utah’s Republican leadership, which claims Utah’s monument questions should be resolved through “collaboration” with state and local officials.
As a Democratic candidate last year, President Joe Biden pledged to restore the original boundaries of the monuments, and within hours of taking the oath of office, he directed the Department of the Interior to study how to make good on that campaign promise.
In June after touring southern Utah meeting with monument stakeholders, Biden’s newly installed Interior Secretary Deb Haaland submitted a report to the White House, recommending Biden use the Antiquities Act to enlarge the monuments. Since then the Biden administration has remained silent on the details and declined to release Haaland’s recommendations.
In a move denounced as “unilateral” and as a “midnight” order, President Barack Obama had designated Bears Ears National Monument on 1.35 million acres in San Juan County as he was leaving office in 2016 at the request of five tribes with ancestral ties to these lands. The decision came after Utah leaders failed to propose a conservation plan for a region rich in archaeological sites and artifacts and sacred to Native Americans.
On Thursday, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which represents the five tribes that proposed the monument, said Biden is doing “the right thing” by redrawing the boundaries in line with what Obama set.
“For us, the monument never went away. We will always return to these lands to manage and care for our sacred sites, waters, and medicines,” said coalition chairman Shaun Chapoose, a longtime elected Ute tribal leader. “The Monument represents a historic opportunity for the federal government to learn and incorporate our tribal land management practices that we developed over centuries and are needed more now than ever.”
Haaland informed Utah’s Republican political leadership on Thursday of Biden’s decision to expand the monuments, prompting a collective expression of frustration, disappointment and a veiled threat of legal action.
“President Biden’s decision to expand the monuments is disappointing, though not surprising. For the past 10 months, we have consistently offered to work with the Biden Administration on a permanent, legislative solution, one that would end the perpetual enlarging and shrinking of these monuments and bring certainty to their management,” read a joint statement issued by Gov. Spencer J. Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Attorney General Sean Reyes, Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. “Our goal has been to make lasting progress on managing our public lands for the benefit of all those who use them, particularly those who live on and near those lands.”
The elected leaders said they had expected closer collaboration with the White House on the Bears Ears question, calling Biden’s decision “a tragic missed opportunity.”
“It fails to provide certainty as well as the funding for law enforcement, research, and other protections which the monuments need and which only Congressional action can offer,” the statement said. “As Chief Justice [John] Roberts noted earlier this year, the purpose of the Antiquities Act is to protect the ‘smallest area compatible with the care and management’ of significant archeological or historical objects to be protected. We agree and will consider all available legal options to that end.”
Utah’s all-GOP congressional delegation also weighed in with their condemnation of Biden’s action, which it characterized as a move to “re-expand” the two monuments, a phrasing that falsely implies the monuments had been expanded previously.
“Rather than take the opportunity to build unity in a divided region and bring resources and lasting protections to sacred antiquities by seeking a mutually beneficial and permanent legislative solution, President Biden fanned the flames of controversy and ignored input from the communities closest to these monuments,” the six-member delegation said. “We will continue to support efforts to ensure that our monuments’ boundaries and management reflect the unique stakeholder interest and uses in the area, but today’s ‘winner take all’ mentality moved us further away from that goal.”
Contrary to the delegation’s statement, several nearby communities did support a larger monument, although others opposed it. The Bluff Town Council and San Juan County Commission passed resolutions calling for the Bears Ears’ expansion to the 1.9 million acres the tribes had sought. The Grand County Commission endorsed restoring the monument to the 1.35 million acres set by Obama.
The new Bear Ears monument will actually be larger than the original because it will include 11,200 acres that the Trump administration added in 2017, according to the White House.
“Restoring these protections will conserve a multitude of sites that are culturally and spiritually important to Tribal Nations — including petroglyphs, pictographs, cultural sites, dwellings, and areas used for traditional rituals, gatherings, and tribal practices — as well as paleontological objects, landscape features, historic objects, and plant and animal species,” its prepared statement said.
In designating Bears Ears in 2016, Obama acted in response to a formal request by five tribes — Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, Hopi and Ute — to protect the public lands surrounding Bears Ears Buttes, west of Blanding. The tribes’ leaders said strong protections were needed to safeguard these lands, which included Valley of the Gods, Cedar Mesa, Grand Gulch and Comb Ridge, from looting, mineral development and inappropriate recreation.
The next year, however, Trump shrunk the monument and chopped it into two noncontiguous units totaling 202,000 acres, leaving out many of the areas the tribes’ specifically wanted to be protected.
Last month, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition pressed the White House to not wait another day to restore the monument, saying “real harm, much permanent” is occurring on the lands Trump stripped from the monument.
“Each day that passes without national monument protection for numerous sacred sites and irreplaceable cultural resources risks desecration, looting, vandalism, and misinformed visitation to an area that contains the exact kind of antiquities that inspired the creation of the Antiquities Act,” the inter-tribal coalition wrote in a Sept. 22 letter to Biden. “These artifacts, considered by us to be messages our ancestors meant for us to see and incorporate as lessons into our present, are literally being erased.”
For the past four years, Bears Ears has remained in a state of bureaucratic limbo. The Bureau of Land Management has produced road signage to mark the boundaries of the monument. But those signs have been gathering dust in storage for years, illustrating the agency’s lack of direction when it comes to running a monument that is supposed to protect and celebrate the nation’s natural and cultural heritage.
Obama’s monument proclamation envisioned a significant role for the tribes in monument management. It established a Bears Ears Commission, with representation from each of the five tribes, that would provide guidance to the BLM and U.S. Forest Service on policies and planning.
But tribal engagement was largely sidelined under Trump. That administration assembled a management plan for the reduced monument with virtually no input from the five tribes, which were given a single seat on an advisory committee that has at least 10 non-tribal stakeholders.
Biden’s anticipated announcement will fall close to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to be celebrated globally Monday.
That timing indicates the White House intends to give Indigenous perspectives a stronger role in the management of Bears Ears than the bit part Trump extended to the tribes, according to Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee.
“It’s time to put Trump’s cynical actions in the rear-view mirror, restore rightful protections, and restart the Bears Ears co-management arrangement with the tribes who have held this place sacred since time immemorial,” Grijalva said.
The president is also expected to restore the 4,913-square-mile Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument that Obama designated in the Atlantic off Cape Cod and Trump later gutted.