Brady McCombs and Patrick Whittle
SALT LAKE CITY — President Joe Biden said Wednesday he plans to review the Trump administration's downsizing of two sprawling national monuments in the American Southwest, including one on lands considered sacred to Native Americans who joined environmental groups in suing when the boundaries were redrawn in 2017.
The new Democratic president also plans to ask the Department of the Interior to reassess a rule change that allowed commercial fishing at a marine conservation area off the New England coast. The move was heralded by fishing groups and decried by environmentalists.
The moves are part of Biden's expansive plan to tackle climate change and reverse the Trump administration's "harmful policies," according to fact sheet issued by the administration on Biden's inauguration day.
Biden vowed to also use executive orders to put a temporary moratorium on new oil and gas leasing in what had been virgin Arctic wilderness, direct federal agencies to start looking at tougher mileage standards and other emission limits again, and revoke Trump's approval for the Keystone XL oil and gas pipeline.
The land monuments Biden will reassess are the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments in southern Utah. President Bill Clinton created Grand Staircase in 1996, and President Barack Obama created Bears Ears in 2016.
The marine monument is called the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, the first national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean and one of just five marine monuments nationwide. Then-President Obama issued the order establishing the conservation area in 2016.
Trump acted in December 2017 to shrink the Utah monuments on the recommendations of then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who was tasked with reviewing 27 national monuments around the country.
The monument review was based on arguments from Trump and others that a law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt allowing presidents to declare monuments had been improperly used to protect wide expanses of lands instead of places with particular historical or archaeological value.
Trump's decision to downsize the Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent on lands considered sacred to Native Americans in southeastern Utah and to shrink Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly half earned him applause from Utah's Republican leaders, who considered the monuments an example of federal government overreach.
Environmental, tribal, paleontological and outdoor recreation organizations have pending lawsuits to restore the full sizes of the monuments, arguing presidents don't have the legal authority to undo or change monuments created by predecessors.
Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said the group has told the Biden transition team the monument should first restored to the size Obama created and later to a larger size tribes originally requested.
The lands are sacred to tribes in the coalition: Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe, he said. The area includes thousands of archaeological sites on red rock lands including cliff dwellings. The Bears Ears buttes that overlook a grassy valley are particularly sacred.
"The Bears Ears is a church and the place of worship for many of our tribes," Gonzales-Rogers said. "It should be viewed with the same type of gravitas and platform that you would view the Cathedral of Notre Dame."
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts conservation area comprises about 5,000 square miles east of New England. It contains vulnerable species of marine life such as right whales and fragile deep sea corals. The monument was the first national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean.
Trump issued an executive order in June 2020 that reopened the monument to commercial fishing. He said at the time that Obama's move to ban fishing in the area was "deeply unfair to Maine lobstermen," although lobster fishermen from the state don't fish in the area.
Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said Wednesday that fishermen opposed Obama's creation of the monument because of the lack of feedback from the industry.
"It was closed without fishery input, and then it was open, and I suppose it's going to be closed again without fishery input," Porter said.