Just hours after being sworn in, President Joe Biden signed an executive order calling for a review of the boundaries for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. The monuments—designated by Barack Obama in 2016 and Bill Clinton in 1996—were reduced by roughly 2 million acres by former president Donald Trump, and the executive order is seen as move towards restoring the original boundaries.
Fierce debate surrounding Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is now standard fare in Utah. The monuments were created using authority granted by the 1906 Antiquities Act, allowing presidents to unilaterally designate monuments on public land. Trumps decision to remove lands from national monument protection under the same authority has been challenged by numerous lawsuits brought by American Indian tribes with ancestral roots to the land as well as environmental groups.
The majority of Utah’s conservative politicians—including newly-elected governor Spencer Cox— have pushed for local control on federally managed public lands, which comprises roughly two-thirds of Utah. Opponents contend the absence of federal management will lead to increased mineral extraction and development benefitting few at the expense of the greater public, to whom public lands purportedly belong.
When debating representation in Utah’s public lands decisions, “local management” often eschews input of Native American tribes—in this case the Navajo, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni and Hopi tribes—in the region. The Bears Ears coalition, which represents these tribes, is already pushing the Biden Administration to restore the original Obama boundaries. Their requests have been bolstered by local governments in San Juan and Grand counties, where Bears Ears is located, to restore the monument.
No good-faith legal debate exists countering Biden’s authority restore the national monuments. The Trump administration’s questionably appropriate actions were regarded by some as a political favor to Utah politicians after he sent then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to investigate 25 national monuments in the American West to ensure they were “right sized,” and only the two in Utah were reduced. With three consecutive democratic administrations creating or moving to restore monuments in Utah and republican politicians at both the local and federal level trying to reduce their size, it seems as though public lands in Utah have become a political football.
As Utah’s republican leadership continues to press for local input, the Biden Administration is likely to push ahead on its own. It would be easier to take the request for local input seriously if it included the five American Indian tribes who had pushed the Obama Administration to create Bears Ears on occupied ancestral land. The future of Utah’s public lands is still unwritten, and we will continue to follow the issue as the story unfolds.
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