Fulfilling a pledge made as a presidential candidate, Joe Biden exercised his executive powers on Friday to restore the original boundaries of Utah’s two great national monuments. The move has been touted as a bold step toward protecting the nation’s natural and cultural heritage, but it could reignite the state’s long-standing feud with the federal government for control of public lands.
[Related: What changes in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante with Bidenâs order?]
Biden was surrounded by monument advocates at the White House as he signed executive orders putting the 2 million acres in the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments that President Donald Trump removed four years ago. He also restored a vast marine monument that his predecessor had gutted.
President’s action “fulfills a key promise and upholds the long-standing principle that U.S. national parks, monuments and other protected areas must be protected at all times and for all,” according to the White House statement . The president’s protection of these three national monuments is part of a series of measures taken by the administration to restore protection to some of America’s most cherished lands and waters, many of which are sacred to tribal nations. . “
Even before the White House announced Biden’s decision on Thursday, however, the Republican leadership in Utah lambasted the president for failing to seek a “collaborative” solution to the monument controversy and practically threatened to sue. administration to court.
“We expected and hoped for closer collaboration between our state and national leaders, especially on issues that have a direct impact on Utah and our citizens,” Governor Spencer Cox and other senior leaders said in a statement. joint press release. “The president’s decision to expand monuments again is a tragic missed opportunity – it does not provide the certainty or funding for the law enforcement, research and other protections that monuments need and that alone Congress action can deliver. “
There weren’t many calls for collaboration in 2017 when Trump came to the Utah Capitol to sign decrees slashing monuments, surrounded by enthusiastic Republican politicians who said the monuments were strangling local economies and choking the autonomy of Utah.
On Friday, Biden quashed those controversial orders by acting on the recommendations of Home Secretary Deb Haaland, who, as a congressman from New Mexico, had championed legislation to expand Bears Ears to include 1.9 million acres sought after by five Native American tribes.
The new Bear Ears monument is actually larger than the original because it will include 11,200 acres that the Trump administration added in 2017, according to the White House. Biden’s 2 million acres returned to monument status will remain available for grazing and cattle hunting, but that land will be removed from future mining concessions and mining leases.
In recent years, many claims have been filed on land that was previously inside monuments, and the federal government may be required to allow their development.
Following in the footsteps of two of his predecessors, Haaland toured the Bears Ears area with Cox and heard from speakers in April. His subsequent report to the White House urged restoration of monuments to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to learn and cherish the history of Indigenous peoples.
âI am proud to support President Biden in restoring these monuments and upholding his commitment to the American people,â Haaland said Friday. âDuring my visit to Utah, I had the honor of speaking with many people who care deeply about this land. The historical connection between Indigenous peoples and Bears Ears is undeniable; our Native American ancestors have supported themselves in the landscape since time immemorial and proof of their rich life is everywhere you look.
Acting in response to five tribes with cultural and ancestral ties to the archaeological landscapes surrounding Bears Ears Buttes in San Juan County, President Barack Obama set the boundaries of Bears Ears at 1.3 million acres in 2016, when Biden was vice president.
Trump’s order split the monument into two non-contiguous units totaling 202,000 acres and excluded large areas once occupied by the Anasazi, the ancestors of today’s Puebloan tribes, who left a rich archaeological record that s’ spans centuries. The five tribes – Ute Mountain Ute, Navajo, Ute, Zuni and Hopi – said these artifacts, which included structures, graves and countless artifacts, have been under threat of looting for decades and require federal protection.
Last month, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which represents the five tribes, urged the White House not to wait another day to restore the monument, saying “real, much more permanent damage” is occurring on the lands and cultural treasures of which Trump has been stripped. the monument.
“These artifacts, seen by us as messages our ancestors wanted us to see and incorporate as lessons into our present, are literally being erased,” the coalition wrote in a September 22 letter to Biden.
To make this point clear, the letter included side-by-side rock art photos shown in 2018 and again in 2019 stained with mud. The tribes claim that the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service failed to involve tribal stakeholders in monitoring the monument as it remained in limbo for nearly four years. Meanwhile, the BLM and Forest Service had finalized management plans that will likely be scrapped when agencies return to the drawing board.
âThese planning activities, which include new water wells to expand livestock grazing opportunities and increased permits for motorized recreation and the strengthening and expansion of campgrounds, have been undertaken without us. involved in collaboration and we do not want them to actually become a fait accompli, âsays the letter from the intertribal coalition.
Utah Governor Spencer Cox, on the other hand, argues that the Bears Ears designation actually put these objects at risk by introducing visitors to sensitive landscapes like Cedar Mesa, Comb Ridge, and Elk Ridge, but without investing in real protection.
âWe designate millions of acres for monuments and then we don’t get any resources for those areas,â he said recently. âAnd all you’ve done now is attract more people to destroy these areas without signs, without reception centers, without law enforcementâ¦ It’s a huge mistake. We end up destroying more antiques and destroying the landscape.
The Biden administration has indicated that it intends to ensure that the monument’s treasures are properly protected, to better manage the increasing visitation of this fragile landscape and to involve the tribes in the management of the monuments.
âThe Bureau of Land Management plans to assign additional guards to the area; install appropriate signage and infrastructure to inform and support visitors; begin working with local communities, the state of Utah and tribal leaders to assess the potential opportunity for a Bears Ears visitor center that showcases the cultural resources of the monument, âthe statement said of the White House.
Perhaps more importantly, Biden has pledged a central role to the intertribal coalition, whose views the Trump administration has pointedly ignored.
But Cox and other Utah political leaders fear that landscape-scale protections come at a high cost in terms of reduced access and lost economic opportunities.
Speaking last summer at a forum on Utah’s support for outdoor recreation, the governor dismissed critics’ claims that heads of state oppose conservation, arguing that Sensitive public lands can be successfully preserved without the onerous designations preferred by the environmental community.
âThere are those who don’t want people to take advantage of this land at all. And this is unfortunately what is happening in many areas, especially with these monument designations, âhe said. âI have miles and miles of sagebrush that most people will never visit or care to visit that are thrown into these monuments without the contribution of the people who care deeply and the ability to live in these monuments. regions. â
Cox and the rest of Utah’s top political leaders have long argued that Utah’s great monument designations go beyond the scope contemplated by the Antiquities Act, the 1906 law that allows presidents to establish monuments on public lands without congressional approval.
A phalanx of environmental and scientific organizations have praised the Biden administration for taking decisive action to save some of the country’s most cultural and scientific landscapes, but also endangered. Friday’s action also restores the Grand Staircase, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 as he sought re-election, setting the limit at 1.9 million acres.
Trump had cut that monument in half, removing many areas that held coal and oil deposits that later became available for development, though none were ever leased.
âThere are some of the most spectacular public red rock landscapes in the country. Through the prism of history, [Bidenâs decision] is going to be the right decision, âsaid Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. âThe task that follows the restoration today is how to prioritize the protection of this landscape and its objects and once again make the Grand Staircase-Escalante the crown jewel of the lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. . “
Trump’s action removed at least 1,400 scientifically significant fossil sites from the Grand Staircase monument, including sauropod swimming tracks, the spot where the dinosaur known as Machairoceratops was discovered and Cretaceous mammal sites, according to David Polly, past president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
âBears Ears and Grand Staircase still have important stories to tell about the ancient history of life on our planet, and [Bidenâs] the action makes sure they will be informed, âPolly said.
The four presidents – Clinton, Obama, Trump and Biden – applied the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish or change the boundaries of the monument. While the courts have validated the presidents’ use of this historic conservation law to define broad monument boundaries, the question of whether it could be used to reduce monuments remains unanswered.
“Until Trump’s illegal actions in 2017, it was well accepted and understood that monument designations were enduring protections,” Bloch said. “I think it still is, and I think we’ll see what Trump did, it’s an aberration.”
Several lawsuits have been filed to overturn Trump’s action, but the restoration of the monuments now renders those cases moot.