Hours after President Donald Trump announced his scaled-back vision for Bears Ears National Monument on Monday, a coalition of five American Indian tribes filed the first lawsuit of many that were promised to challenge the executive action.
Their argument: Trump does not have the legal authority to shrink the designation.
“They declared war on us today,” said Shaun Chapoose, a member of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee. “If they think we’re not prepared to protect it, they’re kidding themselves.”
The courts have not weighed in on the matter since the Antiquities Act’s passage 111 years ago. That law authorizes presidents to unilaterally set aside public lands to protect “objects of historic and scientific interest,” which President Barack Obama used to designate the 1.35 million acres in San Juan County last year.
The five tribes — Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian — pushed for the monument status and are suing Trump and members of his administration for splitting the designation into two areas that comprise less than 202,000 acres. In a brief visit to Utah, the president also trimmed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly 900,000 acres.
In their lawsuit, posted late Monday, the tribes argue to the U.S. District Court in Washington that the Antiquities Act does not allow a president to revoke or modify a monument — only to designate one.
The legal challenge is also about “ensuring our tribal members have access to those lands” that hold spiritual significance, said Ethel Branch, attorney general for the Navajo Nation. Members of the intertribal coalition collect plants and water from the Bears Ears region for cultural and medicinal ceremonies. They regard any action against the monument as a rejection of their heritage and their “ties with Mother Earth.”
“Bears Ears is in every way a home to [these] tribes,” the filing reads.
At a news conference after Trump’s announcement, tribal leaders condemned the president and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for allegedly snubbing their input, criticized the “tremendous affront to tribal sovereignty” and vowed to fight the revised designations.
When he looks out over Bears Ears, Chapoose sees a museum where the artifacts, dwellings and remnants of a culture are displayed in the desert landscape. Without protection, he fears looting, grave-robbing and vandalism will destroy the place he considers sacred.
“We will use every tool available, and we will prevail,” he said.
The tribes are asking for injunctive relief “requiring President Trump to rescind his proclamation, or prohibiting him from enforcing or implementing it in any way.” That would stop the orders signed Monday from taking effect so that no permits are issued for oil and gas drilling or uranium and potash mining.
The monument is already smaller than the 1.9 million acres the tribes originally requested be set aside, said Davis Filfred, Navajo Nation Council delegate. Any further reduction, he added, “is unacceptable to us.”
Jonathan Nez, vice president of the Navajo Nation, blasted Trump’s announcement — which came one week after the tribe’s code talkers visited the White House. During the meeting, the president sarcastically referred to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as “Pocahontas.”
“What transpired today, it’s just hard for me to understand,” Nez said. “It’s just another slap in the face for our Native American brothers and sisters.”
There are precedents for presidents shrinking monuments, but none has been challenged in the courts. When President Woodrow Wilson shaved off half of Mount Olympus National Monument, there was broad support for freeing up the region’s timber resources (though Congress later enlarged the monument and upgraded Olympus to a national park).
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said in an interview earlier Monday that the president’s action is lawful. “It’s been done in the past. It can happen again,” he said.
Zinke, too, said the administration is on firm legal footing, noting that “we didn’t do this in an arbitrary fashion.” Other monuments, he noted, have been changed 10 times in the past.
Two other lawsuits challenging the president’s authority were filed Monday evening in response to the new declarations.
Ten environmental and wilderness groups are suing Trump, as well as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in federal district court in Washington. They are specifically targeting the cuts to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is to be split into three smaller designations and stripped of nearly 900,000 acres under the president’s order.
The lawsuit alleges the president is removing protection for land that would leave “remarkable fossil, cultural, scenic and geological treasures exposed to immediate and ongoing harm.” That includes the Kaiparowits Plateau, which holds abundant coal deposits and is a paleontological hotspot. Since its designation in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton, scientists have unearthed more than 20 new dinosaur species there.
“[Trump wants to] turn the key to these lands over to extractive industries and local interests who really want to see them destroyed,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
The conservation groups also ask for injunctive relief to at least temporarily stop any proposals for oil and gas leasing or coal and mineral mining.
“No one will look back on this decision in 15, 25 or 50 years and say Trump did the right thing by protecting less of this magnificent place,” Bloch said.
The Conservation Lands Foundation, Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology launched a similar lawsuit, calling the president’s actions “unconstitutional, unlawful and unauthorized.” It alleges, too, that bee and plant species will be threatened by the downsized designations.
Other groups, including Friends of Cedar Mesa and Utah Dine Bikeyah, are expected to file later this week. Outdoor retailer Patagonia intends to make its case that the president is “taking away recreation areas [from] our customers” that would financially hurt the company, said its environmental activism manager Ron Hunter.
The Sierra Club called monument reductions a “pathetic example of Trump’s continued abuse of power.” The Western Values Project says it’s “a dangerous turn in our nation’s approach to protecting the places that have forged the Western way of life.” And the Natural Resources Defense Council called it “unprecedented — and it’s illegal.”
— Reporters Brennan Smith, Lee Davidson, Thomas Burr and Brian Maffly contributed to this story.