More than 20 Utah local leaders file court briefs opposing shrinkage of Bears Ears, Grand Staircase monuments

(Photo courtesy of University of Utah Geohazards Research) Pictured is Arch of the Sun in what was formerly Bears Ears National Monument.

A group of 21 mayors and council members from around Utah have signed onto briefs with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in support of lawsuits filed against President Donald Trump’s shrinking of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

The amicus friend-of-the-court briefs — filed Monday and drafted by the Harvard Law School’s Emmett Environmental Law & Policy Clinic and the Salt Lake City Attorney’s Office — contend that the process was flawed, with little input from local voices, and that the boundary reduction will have detrimental economic and environmental effects in the state.

“When the Trump administration began its review of Bears Ears and Escalante, many of us knew it was only a matter of time before these monuments were reduced and harm would come to our local economies,” Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who signed onto the briefs, said in a news release.

The state’s perceived antagonism toward public lands, including designation of the Bears Ears National Monument, resulted in the departure of the Outdoor Retailer convention, which Biskupski said caused immediate economic harm to Salt Lake City through the loss of $45 million dollars in tourist spending. But she said the “truly devastating” part of the decision is its effect on gateway communities and the state’s reputation as friendly to the outdoors.

That’s “why we are filing these briefs,” she wrote, “to give everyone a voice in a decision which has consequences for every community.”

Five of the seven members of the Salt Lake City Council, as well as Salt Lake County Council members Jim Bradley, Arlyn Bradshaw, Jenny Wilson and Ann Granato, all Democrats, also signed on. So did members of the Summit County Council and Alta town council. The mayor of Boulder supported the Grand Staircase brief, while the mayor of Bluff endorsed the Bears Ears one.

Trump came to Utah last December to sign an executive order shrinking Bears Ears (designated by former President Barack Obama after entreaties from tribal leaders and conservation groups) to 202,000 acres instead of the original 1.3 million. Grand Staircase was shaved into three different monuments totaling 1 million acres, down from the 1.9 million President Bill Clinton named in 1996.

Those moves were swiftly met with legal challenges from environmental groups and tribes that say Trump didn’t have the authority to diminish the monuments' footprint. The cases will be heard in D.C. court after a federal judge in September denied the government’s effort to move the cases to Salt Lake City.

(Animated Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sources: U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop’s office

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.

Wilson, the Salt Lake County councilwoman, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday that she signed onto the briefs because she thinks it’s in the best interest of the state to reinstate the original monument boundaries and because she believes the Trump administration short-circuited dialogue with Utah’s indigenous tribes.

“For a long time we’ve heard from one side,” she said. “And when you look at the voter of Salt Lake County that I represent, I really think people say, ‘Look, we want a different outcome for this. We want to preserve lands. We want the tribes’ interest to be represented.’”

As a candidate for U.S. Senate against Republican Mitt Romney, Wilson called for a reversal of the boundary reductions. And though she lost her bid for that seat, she expressed hope that Utah’s majority-Republican congressional delegation will work to find compromise and form a legislative solution to the land dispute.

One of the primary objections raised by opponents to the monument shrinkage was that the Interior Department, which manages the lands, would approve mining or drilling operations on land that was once protected.

The court briefs raise those concerns as well, arguing the move will open the door to uranium mining, permanently scarring the land and “hurting the beautiful vistas and recreational opportunities that promise to spur burgeoning local economies and exposing these communities to dangerous boom-and-bust cycles.”

The Utah officials also raised concerns that interpretations of the Antiquities Act that would allow presidents to revoke national monuments would destabilize a precedent and system that has existed since 1906.

“For decades, the federal government has understood the President’s authority under the Antiquities Act to act as a one-way ratchet: the President may designate a national monument, but may not shrink or rescind it,” the filings say.

Advocates for the monument downsizing have argued presidents should set aside in monuments only the smallest area necessary to protect important resources. And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has said the administration is on firm legal footing to change the boundaries, noting other monuments have been changed 10 times in the past.

The briefs from Utah’s local officials join seven others from members of Congress, the National Congress of American Indians, state attorneys general, legal scholars, archaeologists, members of the Outdoor Alliance and the National Park Conservation Association.