Utah senators push bill to block presidents from creating or enlarging national monuments in Utah

The move comes as Joe Biden takes steps toward expanding Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) An aerial view of land designated for Bears Ears National Monument in 2018. Utah's senators are pushing legislation that would block presidents from creating or enlarging national monuments in Utah using the 1906 Antiquities Act.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee — with an assist from Sen. Mitt Romney — again is pushing legislation attempting to block presidents from creating or expanding national monuments within Utah, unless Congress and the state Legislature approve.

That comes, of course, as President Joe Biden has taken preliminary steps to expand Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments back to their original sizes after former President Donald Trump in 2017 had reduced them in size by 2 million acres.

Democratic President Barack Obama designated the Bears Ears monument in 2016 at the urging of Native American tribes, and President Bill Clinton set aside Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996 by using the Antiquities Act despite significant opposition from Utah’s Republican politicians. Trump then used the same law to slash the monuments, although legal challenges are still in the courts about whether that power is allowed in the Act.

Members of Congress have introduced legislation similar to Lee’s for decades, beginning soon after Clinton created Grand Staircase Escalante — but they have never passed, nor gotten much traction.

In 2018, Lee temporarily blocked a massive lands bill package after senators refused to accept an amendment to exempt Utah from the Antiquities Act. It delayed passage of the big lands package for weeks, but the Senate eventually passed it 92-8.

Passed 115 years ago, the 1906 Antiquities Act aimed largely to help stop plundering of archaeological sites by allowing presidents to single-handedly designate and protect any federal land as a national monument.

But two states — Wyoming and Alaska — have been exempted from the act through the years, and Utah’s senators seek another exemption for their state.

Wyoming was exempted after fights that erupted when President Franklin Roosevelt designated a Jackson Hole National Monument in Wyoming despite local opposition. Congress in 1950 would add most of that monument to an expanded Grand Teton National Park, but at the same time exempted Wyoming from the Antiquities Act.

President Jimmy Carter in 1978 put 56 million acres in Alaska into national monuments. That pushed Congress in 1980 to pass an Alaska lands bills resolving disputes over boundaries of parks and monuments there, but it also exempted that state from the Antiquities Act in the future.

So, Lee reintroduced his Protect Utah’s Rural Economy (PURE) Act seeking similar protection.

“Rural Americans want what all Americans want: a dignified decent-paying job, a family to love and support, and a healthy community whose future is determined by local residents – not their self-styled betters thousands of miles away,” he said in a statement.

(Senate Television via AP) In this image from video, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks as the Senate reconvenes after protesters stormed into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“That is why I am introducing the Protecting Utah’s Rural Economy Act today, a bill that would protect Utah from future abuses under the Antiquities Act by prohibiting the president from establishing or expanding a national monument in Utah unless the proposed monument has been authorized by an act of Congress and the state Legislature.”

Romney co-sponsored the bill, and said it is needed to stop presidents from engaging in a cycle of expanding and reducing monuments in Utah depending on who is in power.

“National monuments in particular have become a political football that gets tossed back and forth as presidential administrations change,” Romney said.

(Graeme Jennings | AP file photo) Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, questions Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken during his confirmation hearing on Jan. 19, 2021.

“Given the recent executive order to review Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, it’s even more important that we work together to end the political back-and-forth,” he added. “The legislative process is the best way to achieve this, and I will continue seeking opportunities to work with our federal, state and local elected leaders to come to a permanent solution.”