Federal judge tosses Utah lawsuit seeking to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments

Attorney General Sean Reyes’ office said they ‘respectfully but strongly disagrees with the court’s order’ and they will appeal.

A federal judge on Friday tossed a lawsuit by Utah political leaders who asked the courts to declare President Joe Biden’s restoration of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments unlawful.

Last summer, state and local officials, including Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and Gov. Spencer Cox, filed a lawsuit seeking to shrink the recently restored monuments by more than 2 million acres.

U.S. District Judge David Nuffer, who ruled on the state’s case Friday, wrote, “In spite of the sincere and deeply held view of the Plaintiffs, there is no relief for them in this action.”

“President Biden’s judgment in drafting and issuing the Proclamations as he sees fit is not an action reviewable by a district court,” he added in Friday’s decision.

Nuffer said that the defendants’ — which included federal agencies, Tribal Nations and environmental groups — motion to dismiss Utah’s lawsuit is “hereby GRANTED with prejudice.”

Utah’s top elected leaders said Friday that they’ll appeal the decision.

A large point of contention in Utah’s lawsuit over the designations stems from the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allowed the federal government to protect “cultural and natural resources of historic or scientific interest on federal lands,” according to the National Parks Service.

In the initial lawsuit filed nearly a year ago, Utah officials said the monument designation was too broad, arguing the Antiquities Act was never meant to “authorize the president to draw boundaries around an enormous land area and then stitch together hundreds of items and features within those boundaries to try to reverse engineer a landscape-scale national monument.”

In the motion granting the case’s dismissal, Nuffer pointed out how since 1920, there have been multiple attempts to rein in a president’s authority to create national monuments based on the Antiquities Act, including with President Theodore Roosevelt’s designation of the Grand Canyon.

“Each of these challenges has been unsuccessful,” he wrote in the decision released Friday.

Four of the five tribes — Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni and Hopi — that initially pushed for the Bears Ears National Monument intervened in the lawsuit last November, arguing the land would be harmed if the designation was tossed.

“The Attorney General’s Office respectfully but strongly disagrees with the court’s order on the Monuments case today. We will appeal the dismissal in order to stand up against President Biden’s egregious abuse of the Antiquities Act,” a spokesperson from Reyes’ office said in a statement Friday.

The governor said Friday afternoon that the monuments case will, ultimately, “be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court and today’s ruling helps us get there even sooner.”

“The clear language of the law gives the president the authority only to designate monuments that are ‘the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.’ Monument designations over a million acres are clearly outside that authority and end up ignoring local concerns and damaging the very resources we want to protect. We look forward to starting the appeals process immediately and will continue fighting this type of glaring misuse of the Antiquities Act,” Cox said.

During Biden’s visit to Utah this week, the governor told reporters that he and the president had talked about Biden’s recent designation of the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni National Monument in Arizona, with Cox noting he disagreed with the decision and believes monument designations end up hurting the landscapes it’s supposed to protect.

In light of his push to “disagree better,” Cox told reporters he wanted fellow Republicans to know that Biden is willing to work together with the GOP.

”This monument (designation in Arizona) is a great example,” Cox said. “He’s not a bad guy because he designated a monument. I think he’s wrong. I think he’s very wrong.”

President Joe Biden directs Gov. Spencer Cox and his wife Abby to join him in the motorcade after departing Air Force One and landing at Roland R. Wright Air National Guard Base in Salt Lake City, Utah on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA, an environmental group that intervened as a party in the state’s lawsuit, praised the court’s decision to dismiss the case and uphold the monument designations.

“Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments are two of the most significant, intact, and extraordinary public landscapes in America — landscapes that will remain protected after today’s dismissal of these lawsuits,” said SUWA Legal Director Steve Bloch in a written statement.

“We are thrilled with today’s decision, which aligns with more than 100 years of similar court rulings that have rejected every challenge to Presidential authority under the Antiquities Act to protect cultural, scientific, ecological, and paleontological resources on public lands,” he wrote.