Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to visit Utah ahead of decision on Bears Ears, Grand Staircase monuments

Utah’s congressional delegation and top state officials say they want a legislative fix.

(Jim Watson | File pool photo via AP) Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., is sworn in before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on her nomination to be Interior Secretary, Feb. 23, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Newly confirmed Interior Secretary Deb Haaland will make a trip to Utah next month for a tour of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, as the Biden administration reviews former President Donald Trump’s decision to drastically downsize the two national monuments.

Utah’s congressional delegation and state leaders on Wednesday welcomed the news of Haaland’s upcoming visit, which they said would give her the chance to speak with local elected officials and residents in the communities surrounding the monuments. And they expressed hope that after touring the area, Haaland would agree with them that it will take legislation rather than executive action to settle years of debate over the monument boundaries.

“Her trip to Utah will allow her the opportunity to speak with the people who live and work on the lands, whose voices may otherwise go unheard, before making any recommendations to the President,” the joint statement read. “We are also confident that this trip will successfully highlight the need for a permanent legislative solution for determining appropriate boundaries for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, with statutory protections to prevent abuses under the Antiquities Act for the State of Utah.”

In a prepared statement, an Interior Department spokesperson said Haaland is “looking forward to visiting Utah in April to meet with stakeholders, Tribes, and elected leaders.”

Within hours of his inauguration in January, President Joe Biden called for a 60-day review of the two formerly large Utah national monuments that Trump reduced by 2 million acres as a political favor to the state’s Republican politicians.

Earlier this month, Utah’s two senators and four congressmen asked Biden to extend this review period so the incoming interior secretary could visit the area before the administration made any decisions about the monument boundaries.

In Wednesday’s statement, the congressional delegation, Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, legislative leaders and Attorney General Sean Reyes said they were “encouraged” that the Biden administration had agreed to push back the deadline. When asked what the revised timeline would be, the Interior Department spokesperson said Haaland would submit her national monument recommendations to the president after her April trip.

Many observers suspect that Biden’s ultimate plan is to reverse Trump’s monument cuts. But Utah’s congressional delegation and state leaders have argued that expanding the monuments under the Antiquities Act — the law that empowers presidents to designate monuments on public lands — would simply perpetuate uncertainty and fighting over the two sites.

“We would much prefer a legislative solution,” they wrote. “A legislative approach – if pursued with the support of the Utah delegation – would serve both the nation and our constituents. If successful, such an effort could help us end this historic cycle of disputes.”

Gov. Spencer Cox, who took office earlier this year, has also called for arriving at a consensus that could put a stop to using the lands as a “political football” in the future. His administration’s 500-day “roadmap,” drawn from his campaign promises and stated goals, expressed opposition to enlarging the monuments, but he’s also suggested a willingness to bend on certain points.

“Can we give on some issues? Can they give on some issues?” the Republican governor said in January. “Can we come to a peaceful resolution of this so we’re not fighting this battle every year?”

Against the wishes of Utah’s GOP political leaders, then-President Bill Clinton designated the Grand Staircase monument in 1996. Twenty years later, President Barack Obama designated the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears at the request of five American Indian tribes with ancestral ties to these lands.

Invoking the Antiquities Act, Trump in 2017 slashed these monuments in a decision that was praised by Utah’s GOP leaders but drew legal challenges from several American Indian tribes and environmental groups. The lawsuits continue to churn through the courts.

By announcing her trip, Haaland is following through on her pledge to visit Utah before making recommendations on the fate of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, whose designations and subsequent reductions have been debated for a quarter century. She’s also following the pattern established by her predecessors — former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited Utah before Obama made the Bears Ears declaration and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke came to the state before Trump downsized the national monuments.

“I would never pass up an opportunity to go to Utah,” Haaland, a former Democratic New Mexico congresswoman, told Utah Sen. Mike Lee during her confirmation hearing.

The U.S. Senate this week confirmed Haaland as Interior secretary, although Utah’s two senators objected to the appointment, with U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney citing her “support for radical policies like the Green New Deal.” She is the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet and is an enrolled member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo.