House Dems want to stop new management plans for Utah’s shrunken Bears Ears, Grand Staircase monuments, citing lawsuits

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Sandstone walls tower over a beaver dam in Calf Creek. The area is currently part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Washington • More than 60 House Democrats on Monday signed letters sent to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urging him to stop work on an environmental study and management plan for the original boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments while lawsuits are pending.

The pair of letters, headed by Rep. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, say that President Donald Trump’s orders to cut the monuments by 2 million total acres are now in legal doubt and taking any action to open the lands for possible development or other uses is wrong while a judge decides their fate.

“As you well know, Bears Ears National Monument deserves federal protection in its entirety,” one of the letters reads, adding that creating an environmental study and a management plan for the lands is a “transparent attempt to rush forward an illegal disposition of public lands before the courts have ruled.”

The other letter echoes that same argument for Grand Staircase.

Trump ordered the dramatic cuts from the two national monuments last December, prompting immediate lawsuits from tribal leaders and environmental groups. Five tribes in the region had pushed for the Bears Ears monument that President Barack Obama established in 2016.

Trump, backed by Zinke and Utah’s elected Republican officials, said Obama’s move was overreach and did not square with the Antiquities Act’s requirements that a monument be the “smallest area” compatible with management of the land needing protection.

The Interior Department said Monday it had no plans to stop a management plan process or the environmental review, known as an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS.

“The secretary is in constant communication with the members of Congress who represent the area around the monument and they continually voice unanimous support for the department’s action to rightsize the monument and restore some of the land for multiple use,” Interior press secretary Heather Swift said. “Additionally, the secretary is dedicated to making decisions with the best available science and information, which is why we are completing the EIS.”

The Democratic House members who signed on to Monday’s letters say the government needs to pull back from planning for additional uses of the former monument land citing a ruling by a federal judge in Washington last week that the Trump administration must notify plaintiffs in the lawsuits if there are any proposals for surface-disturbing activities within the initial designated boundaries.

The judge also ruled against the government’s attempts to move the cases to a Utah federal court, widely seen as a more friendly venue to defend Trump’s action. The two cases — one on Bears Ears and one dealing with Grand Staircase — will remain in the District of Columbia’s federal court.

The Democrats' letters argues that creating a land-use plan opens most of the original monument protected lands to a “management regime that too often left room for looting, vandalism and development threats, including those from extractive industries.”