Utah’s governor and congressional delegation are trying to block President Joe Biden from returning the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments to their original legal status. Instead, they claim under the rubric of “political certainty” that the monuments should be left unprotected for untold years while Utah politicians work out legislation.
There’s only one problem. For Bears Ears, they already tried, and failed; and for Grand Staircase, they never tried at all.
In President Barack Obama’s last term, Utah’s congressional delegation and governor embraced the Public Lands Initiative (PLI), which was intended to comprehensively address Utah’s complex public lands debate, including the best way to protect places like the Bears Ears landscape. But after many stakeholders like us expended a few years and hundreds of hours of time working on the initiative, it completely collapsed. Instead of resolving issues, the PLI morphed into an excuse to run out the clock on Obama’s last days in order to prevent him from protecting Bears Ears in the first place. The current fact pattern, with another democratic president poised to this time re-establish Bears Ears, seems familiar.
It’s curious that Utah politicians’ concern for political certainty never arose when they held power over the past four years. Yes, Rep. John Curtis did introduce (and then quickly abandoned) legislation for Bears Ears. That legislation would have ratified Trump’s diminished monuments, and was adamantly opposed by the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition. Rep. Chris Stewart introduced and likewise never pursued equally terrible legislation for the Grand Staircase. But calling either of these bills any kind of “serious effort” would be a gross overstatement.
Now, we’re expected to believe that Sen. Mike Lee wouldn’t filibuster legislation restoring the monuments. Yet that is exactly what he did when he tried to block the Emery County wilderness legislation, and he would have succeeded were it not tucked into the John D. Dingell, Jr. Act, a rare public lands omnibus legislative package that already had the support of many Senate Republicans.
The delegation has every reason to want to dawdle, but the truth is this moment calls for action now. Trump’s unlawful acts created a crisis for these lands. Consider that while Bears Ears faced exploding visitation, the planning that could have addressed those growing concerns was stopped. No additional resources were brought. Even today, a visitor is hard pressed to know when they are in or out of the monument.
Meanwhile, at Grand Staircase, Trump’s Bureau of Land Management quickly got in the business of approving vegetation removal projects through the most destructive means possible. Trump-era plans remain on the books for both monuments, driving management to the lowest common denominator.
Both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments are extraordinary landscapes, holding hundreds of thousands of priceless and significant cultural, natural and sacred objects. These treasures include a living history of the Indigenous people that dwelled there since time immemorial, and the record of prehistoric life dating back hundreds of millions of years. Unregulated visitation and off-road vehicle use threatens these values every day.
No one can seriously claim that it would be best for the land to delay any action for additional years, which would be the outcome even for successful legislation — far from guaranteed.
The history of Utah’s public lands, and the past actions of our governor and congressional delegation, make things crystal clear: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase need Biden to act. After that, we can start the lengthy process of trying to improve upon that through legislation.
If the Utah politicians are still interested, that is.
Scott Groene is the executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and lives in Moab, Utah.