BLM begins Bears Ears planning process just after Utah sues to revoke monument’s restoration

Plans now underway will replace Trump-era plans for reduced Bears Ears, Grand Staircase monuments—steps Utah wants to block

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Located on Utah's Cedar Mesa, Moon House is a Pueblo III-period cliff dwelling on lands that President Joe Biden returned to Bears Ears National Monument, pictured on May 4, 2010. While the state is suing the Biden administration to revoke the designation, the BLM has initiated a process for crafting a new management plan for the restored monument.

A day after Utah filed suit to erase the Bears Ears National Monument’s restored boundaries, the Bureau of Land Management on Thursday initiated the planning process for the 1.4-million-acre monument in partnership with the five tribes that lobbied for protecting this archaeologically rich landscape encircling Cedar Mesa.

Last October, President Joe Biden restored the original footprint of the monument in San Juan County, along with that of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

President Donald Trump slashed 2 million acres from the monuments using the same law — the 1906 Antiquities Act — that Biden would later use to return that acreage to monument status. The future of these lands became even more uncertain on Wednesday when Utah’s political leaders filed a federal lawsuit to invalidate Biden’s order.

Led by Attorney General Sean Reyes, state leaders allege the Antiquities Act does not authorize presidents to designate large monuments — despite a century of case law affirming large monument designations starting with the Grand Canyon in a 1920 Supreme Court ruling. The suit also seeks an injunction blocking the administration from undertaking any steps toward implementing the monument designations.

Yet the Gov. Spencer Cox’s office still plans to participate in the planning processes for both monuments as a “cooperating agency.”

We want the BLM to do right by these lands, like we do with all their lands across Utah, regardless of their federal designation,” said Jake Garfield, deputy director of Utah’s public lands office. “We want to participate in a constructive way, sharing ideas with the BLM on how they can manage these lands in the best way and protect their cultural resources, protect their paleontological resources.”

It’s the state’s position that the monument proclamations impede the BLM from properly managing these lands, he noted.

“Ultimately, whether it’s a monument or not, we want the BLM to have the tools necessary to be able to do the best job,” Garfield said.

Tribes and environmental groups argue the exact opposite, that monument designation empowers the BLM to regulate and restrict uses that harm monument resources.

On Thursday, the BlueRibbon Coalition, an Idaho-based motorized-use advocacy group, filed its own lawsuit in federal court challenging the monuments’ restoration, making similar arguments.

“President Biden’s abuse of power will have — and is now having — profound practical consequences for the people in our community,” said the group’s executive director Ben Burr. “In its simplest form, a ‘national monument’ designation means lands that were once open for multiple uses for public benefit are now shut off to the public to accommodate the narrow interests of politically connected stakeholders.”

Kane and Garfield counties are co-plaintiffs in Utah’s suit, but not San Juan County, whose county commission voted to endorse the restoration of Bears Ears. Meanwhile, the state is negotiating with the Interior Department to trade 100,000 acres of trust lands inside the monument for federal land elsewhere in the state.

The BLM’s announcement Thursday is an important step toward establishing a Bears Ears monument, which has largely functioned as a monument in name only since President Barack Obama designated it in 2016. Monument lands are no longer open for mineral leasing or claims, but they will remain open to livestock grazing, wood gathering and hunting.

The BLM initiated a similar process last month for the restored Grand Staircase monument and is accepting public comment through Sept. 27.

“It shows they are moving forward,” said Laura Peterson, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “It’s time to get a management plan out for these monuments.”

The Bears Ears plan would replace the one the BLM and Forest Service crafted for Trump’s reduced 200,000-acre version of the monument, confined to two non-contiguous units at Comb Ridge and Indian Creek. Now the monument spans Elk Ridge, Cedar Mesa, Dark Canyon, Grand Gulch and Valley of the Gods, not to mention its namesake Bears Ears Buttes.

Native Americans consider the land sacred and five tribes with cultural and ancestral ties to its canyons and mesa hold co-management authority.

“This new management planning process provides an opportunity to learn from our past planning efforts and ensure the 1.36 million acres of public lands in the monument receive the proper protections,” said BLM Utah State Director Greg Sheehan. “The new Presidential Proclamation provides a framework for managing the monument, but the public can help us determine the best way to implement it. Input at this stage will help inform the issues considered during the planning process and the decisions made in the final management plan.”

The BLM will announce a series of scoping meetings in the coming weeks. The public has until Oct. 31 to submit comments, or 15 days after the last public meeting, whichever is later.

The plan’s key goals are to manage increasing recreational use of these lands, protect their archaeological and paleontological resources, preserve their scenic qualities, and “incorporate traditional and historical knowledge related to the use and significance of the landscape,” while also providing for a variety of uses, including livestock grazing which has occurred there for decades.