Tribes move to intervene in Utah’s monument lawsuit

Ten environmental groups also seek to join fight against bid to strip protections from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) View of Monument Valley, with the Bears Ears in the distance, from the Pine Spring in Monument Valley, on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

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Several Indian tribes and environmental groups are seeking to join the fight against Utah’s lawsuit that seeks to undo the restoration of two large national monuments.

On Friday, four of the five tribes that proposed Bears Ears National Monument filed a motion to intervene in the state’s suit and a related one filed by a motorized-use advocacy group, arguing that they have vital interests in the outcomes of the suits. A consortium of 10 environmental groups led by Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA, filed similar motions on Tuesday with the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City where the two suits are pending.

“Bears Ears sustains life. Bears Ears provides food, medicine, cultural items, and ceremony sites,” said Zuni Pueblo Lt. Gov. Carleton R. Bowekaty, who serves on the board of the five-tribe Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. “As sovereign nations and Bears Ears National Monument co-managers, we have the right to intervene in these lawsuits. As stewards and people of this land, we hold a responsibility to protect Bears Ears.”

In August, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, joined by two Utah counties, and the BlueRibbon Coalition filed the suits, alleging President Joe Biden abused his authority under the Antiquities Act when he returned 2 million acres of public land to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Biden’s move came last year, four years after his Republic predecessor, Donald Trump, dramatically slashed the Bears Ears and Staircase boundaries, initially designated by Democratic presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, respectively

Trump’s order is the subject of five unresolved lawsuits filed by the tribes and some of the groups that are not seeking to intervene in the latest cases.

These monuments are “crown jewels” of the nation’s public lands whose resignation by the Biden administration is highly warranted, according to one of the environmental groups seeking to intervene.

“It’s terribly disappointing that, rather than embrace these monuments as the very best our state has to offer the world, Utah Gov. [Spencer] Cox has attacked them and hopes to see the monuments undone,” said Steve Bloch, SUWA’s legal director. “We’re going to work to stop that from happening. Without the protections that come with being preserved as national monuments, the sacred sites, fossils, and ecosystems found within are at risk of being lost forever to reckless off-road vehicle use, wildcat mining and drilling, and rampant tourism.”

Before the state filed its suit, Cox had repeatedly cited poorly regulated visitation to explain his opposition to the Bears Ears monument designation, which he and other state officials claim is drawing too many careless people into these artifact-filled mesas and canyons surrounding Bears Ears Buttes in San Juan County.

Cox has also argued Congress should be allowed to come up with a lasting resolution for both monuments, rather than have a president unilaterally dictate an outcome without consideration of what local residents want. According to the state’s suit, designating areas exceeding hundreds of thousands of acres goes far beyond the scope of the 1906 Antiquities Act, which called for limiting the size of monument designations to the smallest size practical.

Previous court rulings, however, have uniformly backed large designations going back to President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1908 designation of Arizona’s Grand Canyon as a national monument, later enlarged and reclassified as a national park.

The state’s aim in the lawsuit, as detailed in its outside counsel’s proposal, is to get the case before the Supreme Court in the hopes of winning a ruling that would result in strict guardrails on the presidential authority granted by the Antiquities Act.

Reyes’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

The tribes contend Biden acted legally and in accordance with their wishes when he restored Bears Ears through a presidential proclamation in October 2021. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland later gave the five tribes unprecedented authority to co-manage the monument with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Services.

“The result of a successful challenge would strip monument protection from many important historical and scientific objects as identified in the Biden Proclamation,” states the tribes’ motion to intervene. “It would likewise jeopardize the tribes’ government-to-government comanagement role in stewarding the monument lands. There can be no question that the tribes’ interests may be impaired by the outcome of this litigation.

The tribes’ motions are signed by Daniel Moquin, staff attorney with the Navajo Nation Department of Justice. Joining the motions are the Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni and Hopi tribes. The Ute Indian Tribe did not sign on.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is forging ahead with new management plans for both monuments in consultation with monument advisory committees, representing a diversity of stakeholders. The Bears Ears Commission, a recently reestablished tribal entity that holds co-management responsibility, is also guiding the direction of the Bears Ears plan.

Groups joining SUWA in its motion, which was prepared by the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice, include: National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, Grand Canyon Trust, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and Natural Resources Defense Council.