Bears Ears, Grand Staircase lawsuits will stay in D.C., as judge rejects Trump administration motion to move them to Utah

FILE - In this May 8, 2017, file photo, Arch Canyon within Bears Ears National Monument in Utah is viewed. The U.S. government is issuing draft proposals for how it would like to manage two national monuments in Utah that were significantly downsized by President Donald Trump in 2017 in a move that angered conservation and tribal groups and triggered lawsuits. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, File)

Washington • A federal judge has denied the government’s effort to move the lawsuits against President Donald Trump’s shrinking of the Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments to Salt Lake City and will keep them here.

Judge Tanya S. Chutkan ruled Monday that the suits, filed by environmental groups and tribes that say Trump didn’t have the authority to diminish the monuments' footprint, should be heard in federal court in Washington.

Chutkan also ordered the government to notify the plaintiffs in the case if there are any proposals for hard-rock mining or other surface-disturbing projects proposed within the boundaries of the original monuments, which Trump slashed by about 2 million acres in December.

The Justice Department, which is defending Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and others who are named in the suits, had sought to move the case to the Utah federal court, arguing that the dispute should be heard in the state where the monuments are located.

The Utah federal court could have been more favorable to the government's case while the federal court in Washington is likely a better venue for the plaintiffs.

“We’re gratified by today’s decision by Judge Chutkan to keep these significant cases in federal district court in Washington, D.C," said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of the plaintiffs. "With this venue issue behind us, we look forward to tackling the merits of President Trump’s unlawful decisions to dismantle Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments.”

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah and a supporter of the monument downsizing, said he’d prefer the court battle be waged in Utah, but believes the action will be upheld in any case.

“Would I be more comfortable if they were here in Salt Lake? Yeah. Do I think it’s going to change the outcome? Probably not,” said Stewart, who was touring Zion National Park on Monday with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and other officials.

“We feel confident in the administration’s case before the court. The law and precedent is in the administration’s favor,” said Stewart, the brother of a senior federal judge in Utah.

Attorneys for the government had urged the judge to move the case to the federal court in Salt Lake City, saying that is where Trump signed the orders to change the monument size and where the impacts of the case would be more profound than in Washington.

“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.”

Chutkan denied that motion in a Monday court hearing and ordered the government to notify the plaintiffs within 48 hours of any “ground-disturbing activities” with the original boundaries. The plaintiffs had told the court they worried the Interior Department, which manages the lands, would approve mining or drilling operations that would permanently scar the landscape before the case could be decided.

The judge also set deadlines for an anticipated motion to dismiss the cases by the government and plaintiffs' response. The cases were filed in December on the same day Trump flew to Utah to sign executive orders to diminish their size.

The Bears Ears monument, which tribal leaders and conservation groups had long pushed for, is now 202,000 acres instead of the 1.3 million that President Barack Obama designated in 2016. The Grand Staircase monument is now split into three different monuments totaling 1 million acres, down from the 1.9 million President Bill Clinton named in 1996.

Neda Culver, senior counsel for The Wilderness Society, another plaintiff, said that the judge was right in ruling that groups can decide where they file a lawsuit.

"National monuments belong to all Americans and not just individual states or the special interest groups that would exploit them for mining, drilling and development,” Culver said.

“In attempting to slash vast swaths of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments, Trump has not only flaunted 112 years of conservation history, he has acted to revoke protections for culturally, historically and archaeologically significant national treasures and exceeded his authority under the U.S. Constitution and the Antiquities Act of 1906. We look forward to proving that in court.”

Tribune reporter Brian Maffly contributed to this report.

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