Biden returns 2 million acres to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase

Tribes rejoice as Utah leaders fret over monuments’ restoration.

Fulfilling a pledge made as a presidential candidate, Joe Biden on Friday wielded his executive powers to restore the original boundaries of Utah’s two large national monuments. The move was heralded as a bold step toward protecting the nation’s natural and cultural heritage, but it could reignite the state’s long-running feud with the federal government over control of public lands.

[Related: What changes in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante with Biden’s order?]

Biden was flanked by tribal leaders at the White House Friday as he signed executive orders putting the 2 million acres back into the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments that President Donald Trump stripped out four years ago. Biden also restored a vast marine monument his predecessor had eviscerated.

Bears Ears “is the first national monument in the country to be established at the request of federally recognized tribes. [It’s] a place of healing, a place of reverence, a sacred homeland of hundreds of generations of native peoples,” Biden said. “The last administration reduced the size by 85%, leaving vulnerable more than 1 million acres of cherished landscape.”

Before the White House even announced Biden’s decision Thursday, however, Utah’s Republican leadership blasted the president for not pursuing a “collaborative” solution to the monument controversy and all but threatened to take the administration to court.

“We expected and hoped for closer collaboration between our state and national leaders, especially on matters that directly impact Utah and our citizens,” Gov. Spencer Cox and other top leaders said in a joint statement. “The president’s decision to enlarge the monuments again is 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.”

A larger climate agenda

The president tied the restoration of the Utah monuments to his larger environmental agenda of protecting lands and waters and combating climate change. His administration repeatedly referenced the Build Back Better program and its proposed Civilian Climate Corps, which looks to establish a jobs program to put young Americans to work restoring the nation’s damaged public lands.

“The protection of public lands must not become a pendulum that swings back and forth depending on who’s in public office. It’s not a partisan issue,” Biden said. “As a matter of courtesy, I spoke with both the senators from Utah [Republicans Mitt Romney and Mike Lee]. They didn’t agree with what I was doing, but they were gracious and polite about it. The truth is that national monuments and parks are part of our identity as a people. They are more than natural wonders. They’re the birthright we pass from generation to generation.”

Utah’s all-GOP delegation issued a statement renewing its call for Biden to work through Congress to craft a solution to Utah’s perennial monument battles.

“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.

There weren’t many calls for collaboration in 2017 when Trump came to the Utah Capitol to sign executive orders slashing the monuments, surrounded by cheering Republican politicians who claimed the monuments were strangling local economies and stifling Utah’s autonomy.

‘A living landscape’

On Friday, Biden reversed those controversial orders by acting on the recommendations of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who as a New Mexico congresswoman had championed legislation to enlarge Bears Ears to include 1.9 million acres sought by five Native American tribes.

“Bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice, thank you, Mr. President, for the profound action you are taking today to permanently protect the homeland of our ancestors.,” Haaland, herself an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo, said Friday at a White House podium shared with Biden and two of his top environmental advisers, Brenda Mallory and Gina McCarthy.

“Our songs, our languages and our cultures are strong, and many people from many Indian tribes have sung and spoken in unison to protect this sacred place,” Haaland continued. “Bears Ears is a living landscape. When I’ve been there, I felt the warmth and joy of ancestors who have cared for this special place since time immemorial. It’s a place where you can stand in the doorway of a home where a family who lived thousands of years ago left behind a legacy of love and conservation for a place that sustained them for countless generations.”

San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes, a Democrat and member of the Navajo Nation who advocated for the creation of Bears Ears, said he was glad to see the monument restored, but he agreed with Utah’s congressional delegation that legislative action is needed to protect the region permanently.

”There are no guarantees this won’t be overturned sometime down the road,” Grayeyes said.

The birth of a monument

Acting in response to five tribes with cultural and ancestral ties to the archaeological landscapes surrounding Bears Ears Buttes in San Juan County, President Barack Obama set the Bears Ears boundaries at 1.3 million acres in 2016, when Biden was serving as vice president.

Trump’s order chopped the monument into two noncontiguous units totaling 202,000 acres and excluded vast areas once occupied by the Anasazi, the ancestors of today’s Puebloan tribes, who left a rich archaeological record that spanned centuries. The five tribes — Ute Mountain Ute, Navajo, Ute, Zuni and Hopi — said those artifacts, which included structures, graves and countless objects, have been under risk of looting for decades and require federal protection.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The two buttes that make up the namesake for the Bears Ears National Monument reveal the vast landscape surrounding them as part of the 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah protected by President Barack Obama on Dec. 28, 2016. Utah Republicans in Congress are advocating for Trump to jettison Uta's national monument designation.

On Thursday, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which represents the five tribes, thanked the White House for restoring the monument and giving tribes a say in its care.

“We will always return to these lands to manage and care for our sacred sites, waters and medicines. The Monument represents a historic opportunity for the federal government to learn and incorporate our tribal land management practices,” said coalition co-chairman Shaun Chapoose, a longtime elected Ute tribal leader. “Practices that we developed over centuries and are needed more now than ever. President Biden was right to reinforce the action taken by President Obama almost five years ago. We battled for this Monument because it matters.”

The risks of monument status

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox argues that the Bears Ears designation has actually put those objects at greater risk by ushering visitors into the sensitive landscapes like Cedar Mesa, Comb Ridge and Elk Ridge, but without investing in any actual protection.

graphic showing monument changes

“We designate millions of acres for monuments and then we don’t get any resources for those areas,” he said recently. “And all you’ve done now is attract more people to destroy those areas without signs, without welcome centers, without law enforcement… That’s a huge mistake. We end up destroying more antiquities and destroying the landscape.”

Cox and other Utah political leaders fear the protections will come at a steep cost in terms of reduced access and lost economic opportunity.

Speaking last summer at a forum on Utah’s support of outdoor recreation, the governor rejected critics’ claims that state leaders oppose conservation, arguing that sensitive public lands can be successfully preserved without the onerous designations preferred by the environmental community.

“There are those that don’t want people to enjoy any of this land at all. And that’s unfortunately what happens in lots of areas, especially with these monument designations,” he said. “I’ve got miles and miles of sagebrush that most people will never visit or care about visiting that are being thrown into these monuments without input from locals who care deeply and the ability to live in these areas.”

Cox and the rest of Utah’s top political leaders have long argued Utah’s large monument designations exceed the scope envisioned by the Antiquities Act, the 1906 law that authorizes presidents to establish monuments on public lands without congressional approval.

A phalanx of environmental and science organizations showered praise on the Biden administration for taking decisive action to safeguard some of the nation’s most culturally and scientifically significant, but also imperiled landscapes. Friday’s action also restores the Grand Staircase, designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996 as he was seeking reelection, setting the boundaries at 1.9 million acres.

Trump had reduced that monument by half, excising many areas that held coal and oil deposits that then became available for development, although none were ever leased.

“There are some of the most spectacular red rock public landscapes in the nation. Through the lens of history, [Biden’s decision] is going to be the right decision,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “The task following the restoration today is how do we prioritize the protection of this landscape and its objects and once again make the Grand Staircase-Escalante the crown jewel of lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.”

Trump’s action stripped at least 1,400 scientifically significant fossil sites from the Grand Staircase monument, including sauropod swimming tracks, the spot where the a dinosaur known as Machairoceratops was discovered, and Cretaceous mammal sites, according to David Polly, past president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

“Bears Ears and Grand Staircase still have important tales to tell about the ancient history of life on our planet, and [Biden’s] action helps ensure that they will be told,” Polly said.

Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock, however, believes the initial monument designation led to mismanagement of the land and years of conflict, problems that Trump’s action fixed.

“We had the monument working very well,” Pollock said. “Now, it’s just reversing it back to the mess that we dealt with from 1996.”

Grand Staircase straddles Garfield and Kane counties. Pollock believes Biden had his mind made up before Haaland visited Utah and sees a new round of turmoil on the horizon.

”You’re going to see litigation, you’re going to see political pushback and you’re going to see the next Republican president come in and reverse this back,” Pollock said.

Kane County Commissioner Andy Gant said his county is “sick of being the ping-pong ball for Washington, D.C.,” and wishes federal officials would come up with a congressional solution that would settle the monument debates once and for all. More important than the boundaries are the monument’s management plan and keeping the Staircase out of the national spotlight, he says.

”Every time they draw these boundaries, they put crosshairs on the antiquities they claim to protect,” Gant said. “The travel goes up astronomically every time those boundaries make the news.”

All four presidents — Clinton, Obama, Trump and Biden — wielded the 1906 Antiquities Act in establishing or changing the monument boundaries. While the courts have validated presidents’ use of that landmark conservation law to set expansive monument boundaries, the question of whether it could be used to shrink monuments remains unanswered.

“Until Trump’s unlawful actions in 2017, it was well accepted and well understood that monument designations were durable protections,” Bloch said. “I think that’s still the case, and I think we’re going to see what Trump did is that as an aberration.”

Several lawsuits were filed to reverse Trump’s action, but the monuments’ restoration now renders those cases moot.

Tribune reporters Bethany Rodgers and Zak Podmore contributed to this report.