Washington • Democrats have introduced legislation to expand the former Bears Ears National Monument beyond the boundaries that President Barack Obama established — and President Donald Trump slashed — in a move that could see traction in the Democratic-led House but may be dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate.
The Democratic proposal soon may align more closely with the wishes of San Juan County’s newly seated leadership, now with a Navajo majority on its County Commission. The previous commission had opposed Obama’s proclamation that designated the initial 1.3 million-acre monument spanning Cedar Mesa and other areas rich in Native American artifacts, sacred sites and geologic wonders.
On Tuesday, the commission — with tribal members Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy giving it a 2-1 Democratic edge — is scheduled to consider a resolution rescinding that past stance and calling for the monument’s full restoration, according to its agenda.
The congressional bill — the second time it’s been introduced — would create a 1.9 million-acre monument in southeastern Utah, 600,000 acres larger than the one Obama named in 2016. The larger monument outlined in the Bears Ears Expansion and Respect for Sovereignty Act would match the one the Navajo and four other tribes petitioned Obama to designate.
The measure’s sponsors, including U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat and the first Native American woman in Congress, say it would fulfill generation-long requests by tribes to protect archaeological and cultural resources in the area.
“Bears Ears National Monument is a treasure that I’ve seen with my own eyes,” Haaland said. “Part of the mission of public lands is to protect sacred sites and preserve them for future generations, but under the current boundaries at Bears Ears National Monument, those sites are at risk of disappearing forever. We can fulfill the mission of public lands and protect the culture and history of our country by ensuring the monument encompasses those areas.”
Obama established the monument in one of his last acts in office, using the power of the 1906 Antiquities Act that granted a president unilateral power to preserve national treasures.
Trump, in 2017, cut 85 percent of the monument’s boundaries — and whacked 900,000 acres from southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — using the same law that Obama had tapped to create it. Lawsuits over that action continue in federal court with environmental groups and tribes arguing the president doesn’t have the authority to erase monument designations.
San Juan County has filed court papers to intervene on the side of the Trump administration in three of those suits. Under one of the County Commission’s proposed resolutions, San Juan would withdraw from these suits and terminate its service agreement with Mountain States Legal Foundation, a right-leaning nonprofit law firm representing three counties in the monument lawsuits.
Another resolution condemns Trump’s action reducing the monument as an “unlawful” abuse of the Antiquities Act.
In his December 2017 announcement at the Utah Capitol, Trump cited the wishes of locally elected leaders as he signed orders shrinking Utah’s two large national monuments.
“The families and communities of Utah know and love this land the best, and you know the best how to take care of your land,” he said, surrounded by jubilant county commissioners, including Bruce Adams, who still serves as San Juan’s commission chairman, and Rebecca Benally, a Navajo and leading tribal voice opposing the Bears Ears designation.
Maryboy, a monument proponent, thwarted Benally’s re-election bid. He was sworn in Jan. 7 along with Grayeyes, another pro-Bears Ears activist who survived San Juan political leaders' efforts to keep him off the ballot and the commission.
Back in Washington, the Democrats' bill — with no GOP co-sponsors — rankled Utah Republicans who argue it’s an intrusion into a state issue that should include their consultation.
Rep. John Curtis, a Utah Republican who represents the Bears Ears area, was ticked the bill's sponsors never approached him.
“I believe everybody should have a seat at the table and have done my best to do that with each bill I have introduced,” Curtis said. “Introducing a bill with over 70 co-sponsors without involving or contacting the lawmaker who represents the only land affected by the legislation is not an effective way to resolve the public lands issues facing San Juan County.”
Curtis said he was also insulted by the timing of the introduction, just hours after the House Natural Resources Committee shot down his amendment to require local input into public lands measures.
“I didn't think I would be proven right so quickly,” Curtis said.
New Rep. Ben McAdams, the lone Democrat in Utah’s congressional delegation, is not co-sponsoring the bill. A McAdams spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The bill’s backers, though, say their move is about restoring protection for lands that tribes have fought for since the early 1900s. It’s supported by a long list of groups, including the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Council, Utah Diné Bikéyah, the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society and the National Parks Conservation Association.
“Millions of people across the country voiced their support for protecting our national monuments during President Trump’s monuments review, but the administration chose to ignore the letter of the law and the voices of the public to cater to big oil and mining — including uranium mining, which has harmed so many people in this region,” said Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney of the Rocky Mountain office of Earthjustice, which also backs the Democrats' legislation.
“The Trump administration may never listen to the voices of the defenders of our wild places," she added, “but public lands champions in Congress can.”
The Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe have endorsed the legislation as well.
“It is encouraging to see Congress working towards safeguarding our most cherished landscapes instead of dismantling them,” the Hopi Tribe said in a statement.