President Joe Biden is restoring the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments at a signing ceremony on Friday. The two national monuments in Utah will to back to their original 1.36 million and 1.87 million acres respectively after former President Donald Trump signed a controversial executive order shrinking Bears Ears by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 50%. The move is sure to be taken as a victory by conservation advocates who had fought to regain protections, but legal battles over the areas are likely to persist.
The National Monument protections have become something of a proverbial political football for the past three administrations. Former President Barack Obama created Bears Ears shortly before leaving office, which Trump unraveled with largest reversal of land protections in history. On his first day in office Biden signed an executive order calling for a review of the boundaries which had been reduced.
Nevertheless, the issue is far from settled as Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has already said the state would sue the administration if Biden were to restore the land protections unilaterally. That’s exactly what’s happening, so lawsuit incoming, I suppose. Cox would prefer the land’s status to be codified via an act of Congress so as to avoid a federal ping pong match using Utah’s public lands as a proxy. Looking at the recent track record in the U.S. House and Senate, I wouldn’t bet on something productive happening.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited both monuments in April and subsequently submitted a report recommending the president restore the protections. Additionally, a coalition of Native tribes has been pressing the Biden Administration in recent weeks to act. The land contained within the National Monuments is considered sacred for numerous Native tribes including Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni.
Opponents of the monument designations have sought to strip protections in favor of economic development opportunities from ranching to mineral extraction to tourism focused recreation. However, taking away access to public land—which, again, belongs to every single American—so a select few can try to make money on it isn’t typically a winning argument. State leaders, meanwhile, will continue to pursue avenues for achieving “local control” over federally managed lands. It should be stated this is a euphemism for privatization.
The battle over Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is far from over, but the Biden Administration’s actions mean for the time being, conservation advocates have won the day.