Washington • Tribal leaders testified Wednesday that President Donald Trump’s slashing of two national monuments in Utah was illegal, and House Democrats questioned whether the process was precooked in favor of oil and gas companies and special interests.
During the first hearing focused on Trump’s review and subsequent shrinking of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, Republicans and Democrats sparred over the reasoning behind the president’s actions as well as proposed changes to the Antiquities Act that gives a president unilateral authority to designate a monument.
“It is my firm belief that this was a predestined outcome and everything since has been to justify that outcome,” House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said at the conclusion of the hearing.
He added, forcefully, “The Antiquities Act is not broken.”
The 1906 law — which presidents have used to preserve public lands, including the creation of the two Utah monuments at the center of Wednesday’s hearing — has been criticized for decades by Republicans who argue that power shouldn’t rest with one person.
Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the top Republican on the committee, praised the hearing but said the aim should be to reform the process by which national monuments are designated. He has legislation to do just that, requiring approval of Congress, the governor, state Legislature and locally elected officials for any new monument.
“If indeed we are serious about creating a process," Bishop said, “this legislation is the one to get it done.”
Wednesday’s hearing is the first crack Democrats have taken to publicly review Trump’s actions since they took control of the House. Among the 10 witnesses were officials from several tribes that had sought protection for the Bears Ears area and sued Trump and the Interior Department when the president carved all but 200,000 acres from the original 1.3 million-acre monument. The lawsuits are still pending.
“First, let’s be clear, President Trump’s unprecedented proclamation revoking Bears Ears and replacing it with two small monument units violates the Antiquities Act and exceeds the power delegated to the president by Congress,” testified Tony Small, vice chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe's business committee.
“The Antiquities Act does not authorize a president to rescind or modify national monuments created by their predecessors," Small added, “and certainly does not authorize them to revoke and replace existing monuments with smaller ones as has been attempted here.”
Carleton Bowekaty, the lieutenant governor of the Zuni Tribe, said the Trump administration largely ignored tribal interests in its fast-tracked monument review in 2017 that led Trump to downsize the Utah monuments.
“It appears that this so-called review was conducted with a predetermined objective of justifying executive action — action which we are now challenging in federal court — to greatly reduce the area protected by Bears Ears National Monument so that excluded lands can be available for mineral exploration and development,” Bowekaty said.
But Leland Pollock, the chairman of the Garfield County Commission, where much of Grand Staircase monument was located, said it was local residents and officials who were ignored when President Bill Clinton designated the area and that it’s negatively impacted the economy and way of life for people who live there.
Contrary to the arguments of monument advocates, he said, tourism hasn’t been affected since Trump slimmed the monument by 900,000 acres.
“Tourism is up. We are experiencing record numbers all over Garfield County,” Pollock testified. “I believe that I have data on the visitor centers within the monument that visitation went up after the reduction. The land’s still there. People are still coming.”
Pollock also charged that people asserting that the lack of monument status would damage cultural and ancient artifacts are wrong, because those are already protected under existing law.
David Polly, the immediate past president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, said it was true that dinosaur bones are still protected, but a monument status allowed for more scientific research that had led to the discovery of more than a dozen new species.
To underscore his point, Polly brought a toy version of a newly found dinosaur named Machairoceratops and placed it at the committee table as he spoke.