Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase remain in limbo as lawsuits move slowly and legislation stalls

Washington • A day after President Donald Trump sliced up two Utah national monuments in 2017, members of Congress from the state introduced bills to cement the president’s actions and defend them against instant court challenges.

Dude, there’s nothing quite like Utah,” said Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican who supported dismantling the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. “We want to share that with as many people as we can.”

Stewart introduced legislation that would codify Trump’s shrinking of the Grand Staircase monument to 1 million acres from 1.9 million acres as well as create a new national park.

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, also unveiled a bill to put into law Trump’s executive order that took away a million acres from the Bears Ears monument in southern Utah.

“Now that the president has created two new monuments in my congressional district, the time has come for Congress to ensure that these sites are managed the right way,” Curtis said at the time.

And then nothing happened.

The two pieces of legislation never advanced. They haven’t been reintroduced this congressional session and Stewart and Curtis aren’t rushing to do so.

Nearly 18 months later, the state of the two monuments remains unsettled.

Lawsuits over Trump’s actions could take years to reach a resolution — and appeals could keep it in the courts for much, much longer. With the House now controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Republicans, there’s little chance for a legislative fix.

“We’re a landscape in limbo is the way I say it,” said Josh Ewing, the executive director of the Friends of Cedar Mesa, which pushed for the establishment of the Bears Ears monument.

“But it is very challenging because, you know, particularly the issue that is the largest threat right now is the high levels of visitation we’re seeing and that level of visitation is having impacts on the landscape,” Ewing added. “Yet the ability to respond to that, particularly on the government side, is really restricted by the legal limbo and the situation we’re in.”

A federal judge in Washington is still considering a motion to dismiss lawsuits filed by environmental groups and tribal governments against Trump’s orders to remove the 2 million acres from the Utah monuments. The plaintiffs contend that the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives a president power to create a monument, does not allow a president to erase one.

Utah’s members of Congress, who at the time all supported Trump shrinking the Utah monuments, both of which were created by Democratic presidents, were hurrying in 2017 to protect his action with legislation. If Congress passed the bills to place Trump’s orders into law, the lawsuits would be moot.

Stewart’s office said the congressman wasn’t in a rush now to reintroduce the legislation that would create the Escalante Canyons National Park, a 100,000-acre area that would add to Utah’s Mighty Five national parks that include Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion.

Escalante Canyons National Park would include a network of slickrock slot canyons draining to the Escalante River and the 130-foot-tall Escalante Natural Bridge.

“At this time, we are still in the process of working with our coalition to decide whether to reintroduce,” said Stewart’s spokeswoman Madison Shupe.

Curtis, too, isn’t sure when he’ll bring back his bill that would have added more law enforcement officers to the area around Bears Ears monument, enshrine Trump’s actions into law and prohibit oil and gas drilling in the original boundaries of the monument as created by then-President Barack Obama.

“Representative Curtis firmly believes that only congressional legislation can bring certainty to the divisive debate over Bears Ears National Monument,” said Curtis’ spokeswoman Ally Riding. “Currently, the national monument is at risk of growing or shrinking based on the whims of the president in office, and legislation can provide resources to protect the area, unlike this unilateral ping-pong.”

Curtis’ office pointed to a bill passed by Congress, and now law, that aimed to end a fight over wilderness designations in Utah’s Emery County, one that found bipartisan consensus as well as support among environmental groups and local officials.

“The Emery County bill only passed once consensus was reached across the wide spectrum of stakeholders,” Riding said. “The congressman will continue to visit Bears Ears, supporting an open dialogue to find a good-faith balance that all those who enjoy and cherish the land can agree on.”

In the meantime, the federal judge overseeing the case, Tanya Chutkan, has ordered the Interior Department to notify plaintiffs if there are any proposed changes to the original monuments’ boundaries, such as proposals for oil, gas or uranium mining.

The BLM is in the process of finalizing a management plan for the Grand Staircase area that could be completed this fall. That move, though, may be under an investigation requested by Democratic lawmakers who believe the agency violated federal law by detailing acreage where oil and gas permits could be issued.

For now, while the area’s status is being litigated and perhaps legislated, it remains the Wild West in some ways.

More visitors, possibly prompted from news coverage of the Bears Ears monument, have been attracted to the area, but there are no signs for tourists to know where to go, no bathrooms nor warnings about possible cultural or archaeological treasures to avoid.

“We’re having this slow gradual destruction and impact on lots of cultural sites,” Ewing, the Cedar Mesa director, said. “There are basic human waste issues here. All those sort of things, they’re building up. And because of the limbo, they’re not being addressed in a timely way.”

Steve Bloch, the legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a plaintiff in two of the cases challenging Trump’s actions, says the limbo created by the president’s orders is already causing harm.

“There’s clearly a lot of uncertainty there about what people can and cannot do,” Bloch said. “And I think that uncertainty is to the detriment of the objects. So if it’s fossils or cultural resources or simply, you know, wildlife, the wilderness resource that’s there are all being eroded away.”

And he noted that while the judge has ordered the government to notify the public about any possible drilling in the area, there’s no court-ordered injunction yet.

Ewing added that he doesn’t think the situation in the area is affecting business — in fact, more businesses are seeing the potential for tourism in the area.

But asked if he saw an ultimate solution on the horizon, Ewing said he did.

“Jan. 20, 2021,” he said, referring to the date of the next presidential inauguration.

Assuming Trump doesn’t win reelection, Ewing sees a possibility that whoever occupies the White House then will reverse Trump’s orders.

“With the correct change in leadership and with someone [who] wants to be proactive and really work with tribes and work to protect the area and advance visitor-management issues — that would be a big deal,” Ewing said.