Washington • The Trump administration is urging a federal court in Washington to transfer lawsuits seeking to overturn changes to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments to Utah’s district court, where it says the impact of the ultimate decision will be felt most.
Tribal nations and environmental groups, who filed separate lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against President Donald Trump’s actions, are expected to oppose the motion.
A request to change venues is usually aimed at finding a more sympathetic court or jury, and Utah might be a more favorable jurisdiction for the executive order shrinking the monuments — at least judging by the views of voters.
A new poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics shows that about half of Utahns support Trump’s move to dramatically shrink the two monuments.
About 51 percent of registered voters surveyed said they support Trump’s proclamation to toss out the larger Bears Ears monument in favor of two smaller designations, while 43 percent opposed the action.
On Grand Staircase, just under half, 49 percent, said Trump made the right move to trim the monument by nearly 1 million acres, leaving behind three separate monuments. Some 45 percent were against the change.
In a December visit to Utah, Trump sliced 2 million total acres from the monuments — a move requested by Utah’s members of Congress and statewide leaders.
As expected, Republicans overall strongly supported the president’s actions (74 percent for Bears Ears and 71 percent for Grand Staircase) while Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the changes (95 percent for Bears Ears and 92 percent for Grand Staircase). Independent voters, making up the second largest group in Utah, opposed the changes by majorities of 59 percent and 62 percent, respectively. More men than woman across all political affiliations agreed with Trump’s order, as did older voters versus younger voters.
The statewide poll, conducted Jan. 15-18 among 803 registered voters, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.
Trump’s shrinking of the monuments — Bears Ears is now 202,000 acres compared with the 1.3 million acres originally designated by President Barack Obama, and Grand-Staircase is 1 million acres, down from 1.9 million set aside by President Bill Clinton in 1996 — was the immediate target of five lawsuits by the tribes who pushed for the former monument and environmental groups who want the larger areas protected.
The Department of Justice, which is defending Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and other officials in the lawsuits, did not respond to a request for comment.
In its motions, the department’s attorneys argue that the cases should be heard in Utah, where the monuments exist and where Trump signed his orders, and that it’s common for such lawsuits to be heard in the court nearest the impact.
“The local interest in this case is indisputable: This action concerns public land in Utah, the use and enjoyment of that land by Utah residents, including tribal members, and the regulation of that land by federal agencies in Utah,” the attorneys wrote. “The strong local interest in Utah public land cases has been recognized time and time again by the courts of this District.”
Moreover, the government attorneys argue that national interest in the case is outweighed by the local interest in the outcome.
“The fact that the challenged decision here may have national importance, or that the plaintiffs may have a national membership, does not change the inherently localized nature of these interests,” the attorneys said.
The Ute Indian Tribe, one of the groups suing the federal government, said it is “authorized by federal law” to file suit in Washington.
“While the United States would prefer to have the case heard in Utah, plaintiffs, not defendants, generally get to make that decision,” the tribe said in a statement to The Tribune. “The Tribes therefore will ask the District of Columbia Court to respect the Tribes’ legally authorized choice to file where the President and others were making these decisions.”
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) agreed.
“President Trump’s unprecedented dismantling of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments is a matter of national significance and thus the lawsuits challenging the president’s actions were properly filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C.,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for SUWA, one of the plaintiffs. “The federal public lands now at risk by President Trump’s unlawful actions are significant to millions of Americans from across the nation, not just Utahns. It is astounding that the administration would be trying this procedural maneuver and it speaks volumes about the weakness of their case.”
The Department of Justice of the Navajo Nation declined comment Tuesday, as did the Native American Rights Fund, which is representing several of the tribes.
The lawsuits in the case could take a while to litigate. The judge in the case has given the government until March 16 to file a response to the initial complaints served in December.
Meanwhile, Utah’s members of Congress are pushing legislation that would codify Trump’s actions into law, action that could make the lawsuits moot.
The lawsuits largely argue that while the president does have the power to create a national monument under the 1906 Antiquities Act, Trump did not have the authority to essentially remove the designations and create much smaller protected areas.