Why Utah leaders are picking the wrong legal fight over public lands (and on your dime), Editorial Board writes

Instead of trying to destroy the Antiquities Act, Utah can embrace its role as a public lands state

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Louis Williams, a Diné guide who runs Ancient Wayves River and Hiking Adventures in San Juan County, looks up at an inaccessible ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling in Bears Ears National Monument on April 16, 2021.

This is the place where we would again call out the Utah Legislature, Attorney General Sean Reyes and other state leaders for spending millions of taxpayer dollars on pointless political performance art.

What’s frightening to realize, though, is the state’s latest legal attempt to gut the Antiquities Act of 1906 may actually have some chance of success. Which is why it is so important for the people of Utah to make it clear we want no part of such a destructive action.

The nation’s courts have long read the Antiquities Act as a decision by Congress to give broad authority to any American president to preserve federally owned land of historic or geological significance. Given that history, Utah’s objection to the creation and now the restoration of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments seemed to be without a legal leg to stand on.

But the current make-up of the Supreme Court of the United States clearly undermines any confidence that long-standing legal precedent is safe.

This is the world into which the Utah Legislature has pledged at least $5 million in state money. Lawmakers have empowered Reyes to hire high-powered, and high-priced, law firms.

These firms are aiming not just to overturn the decision by President Joe Biden to restore those two national monuments after President Donald Trump ordered them to be fractured, but also to challenge the underlying Antiquities Act, neutering it once and for all.

Instead of an endless campaign to fight the federal government in court, Utah’s elected officials could demonstrate some real leadership by making some more reasonable arguments for federal actions that would genuinely help the Beehive State.

There are large holdings of federal land — beyond the borders of any national monument or national park, near existing cities and towns — that could be transferred to state ownership or to the private sector, either for recreation or to help struggling communities build needed and affordable housing and public infrastructure.

In return, perhaps, for the state agreeing to keep the bargain it made when it attained statehood in 1896 and give up all claims to federally owned land within state borders.

Utah and its communities have rightfully made the case that the amount of money they get from the federal government to make up for the fact that the feds pay no taxes has always been far too small. The federal government owns this land, holding it in the name of the American people. That doesn’t mean it has to be a chintzy absentee landlord.

If Utah’s elected leaders, at the state and local level, were willing to extend a hand rather than file another lawsuit, it might find willing partners in the administration and in Congress for steps that would benefit everyone.

Bill Clinton’s 1996 order creating Grand Staircase and Barack Obama’s 2016 decision to declare Bears Ears were both in keeping with the letter and the spirit of the Antiquities Act.

Clinton was rightly criticized for not consulting with Utah leaders or residents before his order, a bald attempt to court environmentalist voters, mostly in Arizona. But in the decades since, a whole economic ecosystem of tourism, guides, restaurants and related businesses have established in and around that monument. And the Utah Legislature basically ratified it by approving deals to swap state inholdings within Grand Staircase with other parcels or federal land elsewhere in the state.

Obama could not be criticized for surprising anyone with his Bears Ears designation. An alliance of Native American nations worked for years to gain recognition of their claims to ancestral lands that held special meaning for so many of them, lands that make up a spiritual and ecological whole that can’t rightly be fractured into bits and pieces without losing most of their significance.

In addition to the support of the Native Americans, many other area residents and leaders — including the Grand County and San Juan County commissions — support the preservation of Bears Ears as first designated. The state’s claim that Obama and Biden ignored local wishes and input in the case of Bears Ears is false.

Utah leaders have shown some significant willingness recently to help Native nations, with plans to finally bring water and electricity to the community of Westwater near Blanding, and a new water development deal with the Navajo Nation backed by Gov. Spencer Cox and Sen. Mitt Romney.

The state of Utah is a partner in the management of federal lands within its borders. But it could be a useful, creative and successful partner if its leaders would show an interest in managing those lands for the benefit of local residents, our Indigenous neighbors, wildlife and future generations.

That would be better than picking yet another legal fight, even one it might win.