A broad coalition representing American Indian tribes, recreation interests and paleontologists is the latest looking to sue President Donald Trump for his sweeping reductions of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument.
It’s the fourth lawsuit filed since the administration’s proclamations Monday, and it makes largely the same argument: Trump does not have the legal authority to shrink or slash designations made by his predecessors.
Utah Dine Bikeyah, the grass-roots Navajo nonprofit that began developing the monument proposal years ago, is leading the court challenge, which also includes outdoor-gear retailer Patagonia and conservation group Friends of Cedar Mesa.
“President Trump has literally dismembered our sacred Bears Ears monument that five tribes have worked tirelessly for many years to protect in order to preserve our culture and our way of life,” said board member Mary Benally.
In arguing for the five tribes — Hopi, Navajo, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni — with ancestral and spiritual ties to the land, the lawsuit alleges that splitting the 1.35 million-acre monument into two smaller areas that comprise about 202,000 acres would threaten hundreds of historical rock art panels, artifacts, pueblos and kivas. Tribal leaders also fear that it may stop members from accessing plants and water used in sacred ceremonies.
Under Trump’s downsizing, the groups estimate that 73 percent of the archaeological sites protected by then-President Barack Obama’s 2016 designation in San Juan County would sit outside of the redrawn boundaries.
“Threats to the landscape of the national monument are also threats to the cultural heritage and identity of the tribes and their members,” reads the lawsuit, filed Wednesday evening in U.S. District Court for Washington.
The Antiquities Act, the eight groups argue, allows a president only to designate a monument — not to revoke or modify one — so Trump has “exceeded” his authority granted by Congress. The courts have not weighed in on the matter since the law’s passage 111 years ago.
During his brief visit to Utah on Monday, Trump also trimmed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly 900,000 acres (the subject of two of the lawsuits). His proclamations are set to take effect in early February, 60 days after he signed them.
The filing posted Wednesday asks that the court order Trump to restore the original monument and bar his administration, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, from acting on the reconfigured designations.
For its part, Patagonia says the reduced monuments would hurt the company financially by taking away recreation areas that provide “some of the best rock climbing in North America” used by its customers.
“The objects of historic and scientific interest comprising the Bears Ears National Monument are critical to the use and enjoyment of Patagonia’s employees and sponsored athletes,” the filing states.
Development in the area, adds Friends of Cedar Mesa, would mean “direct and immediate harm” to the paleontological hot spots within the monument’s boundaries, and oil and gas drilling “will result in the destruction and degradation” of the ecosystem; the area left out of the designation, too, could see increased looting of archaeological artifacts, and “otherwise pristine and undeveloped” areas could be opened to extractive activities.
“Our organization has never before been involved with litigation,” said the group’s executive director, Josh Ewing, in a statement. “Yet this extreme and unprecedented effort by the president to erase national monument protections for even the most uncontroversial and world-renowned areas like Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch, leaves us no choice but to pursue our legal rights in the American system of justice.”
The latest lawsuit comes at the heels of three others filed Monday — all in Washington’s federal District Court — while Zinke and Utah’s Rep. Rob Bishop have contended that the president’s action is lawful.
The five tribes submitted their own legal challenge to Trump, arguing that the full Bears Ears designation holds spiritual significance and contains cultural artifacts that deserve protection at the threat of grave-robbing and vandalism. The administration, too, they allege, snubbed their input and slighted their sovereignty
Ten environmental groups, including Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, are specifically targeting the cuts to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in their lawsuit. They argue that the president is removing protection for land that would leave “remarkable fossil, cultural, scenic and geological treasures exposed to immediate and ongoing harm.” That land includes the Kaiparowits Plateau, which holds abundant coal deposits.
Lastly, three more plaintiffs — Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and Conservation Lands Foundation (the latter two also being part of the coalition with Utah Dine Bikeyah) — filed a case against Trump that says removing protection for nearly half of Grand Staircase-Escalante will threaten “sensitive resources located there,” including plant and bee species, archaeological artifacts and geological formations.
Each case seeks injunctive relief to stop Trump from moving forward on the monument revisions, specifically barring mining operations.
There are precedents for presidents shrinking national monuments, but none has been challenged in court. When 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).
Utah’s Rep. Chris Stewart and John Curtis both introduced legislation this week in response to the president’s proclamations. Stewart proposes turning a piece of the soon-to-be-dismantled Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument into Utah’s sixth national park. Curtis’ measure would add law enforcement to the two remaining swaths of Bears Ears National Monument, forbid oil and gas drilling and mining in the region, and give tribes a role in managing the lands.