Sam Metz and Brady McCombs
SALT LAKE CITY — The state of Utah and two Republican-leaning rural counties sued the Biden administration on Wednesday over the president's decision last year to restore two sprawling national monuments on rugged lands sacred to Native Americans that former President Donald Trump had downsized.
The lawsuit over Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, the two southeastern Utah monuments, alleges that President Joe Biden's action violates the authority granted in a century-old law that allows presidents to protect sites considered historically, geographically or culturally important.
The monuments, which together are nearly the size of Connecticut, contain canyons surrounded by pink ribbons of limestone, dramatic red rock mesas and buttes, juniper forests and Native American artifacts including ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.
The arguments raised in the lawsuit have for years been repeated by Republicans in court and in campaign speeches. The legal challenge from Utah and right-leaning counties had been expected since Biden made the move in October 2021, when he called Bears Ears “a place of reverence and a sacred homeland to hundreds of generations of native peoples.” It's the latest twist in a yearslong debate spanning three presidential administrations.
In a joint statement on Wednesday, Gov. Spencer Cox and Utah's entire congressional delegation accused the federal government of not properly managing the land and blamed the expanded monuments for “unmanageable visitation levels.”
“We now challenge this repeated, abusive federal overreach to ensure that our public lands are adequately protected and that smart stewardship remains with the people closest to the land," said the group, whose signatories included U.S. Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday afternoon that the administration did not have any comment about the lawsuit.
Public lands and how they’re managed often become politically contentious in rural parts of Western states, pitting Republican-leaning ranching communities skeptical of federal overreach against conservationists and tribes who argue robust federal protections are needed as a bulwark against development or industries like mining or logging.
The part of southeastern Utah where the two monuments are located has been at the center of some of the country’s most heated land management debates since President Bill Clinton designated Grand Staircase a national monument in 1996.
The lawsuit is a waste of taxpayer money, said Center for Western Priorities Executive Director Jennifer Rokala said in a statement.
“The State of Utah has made a poor decision in choosing to sue over Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Not only do the people of Utah support the protection of these impressive and significant landscapes, the legal case against the monuments is thin," Rokala said.
Bears Ears, which was designated a National Monument by President Barack Obama, is unique because land management decisions are made by a commission jointly governed by federal agency officials and representatives from five tribal nations. The commission was reestablished this past June, five years after it and an Obama-era joint governance plan was scrapped when the Trump administration downsized the monuments in 2017.
That decision opened parts of the monuments up for mining, drilling and other development. Low demand and high production costs led to minimal interest from energy companies in the lands that became unprotected when Trump downsized the monuments, including a large coal reserve found in the lands cut from Grand Staircase or uranium on lands cut from Bears Ears.
“President Biden made no attempt to explain how 3.23 million acres constituted the ‘smallest area compatible with the proper care and management’ of these supposed monuments,” the lawsuit claims, citing the 1906 Antiquities Act outlining rules for designating national monuments.
Two southern Utah counties, Kane and Garfield, joined the lawsuit.