“This may be the easiest thing I've ever done so far as President.”
That’s what President Joe Biden said Friday afternoon, speaking from outside the White House, to celebrate the presidential action that will expand two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Democratic lawmakers, tribal leaders and environmentalists attended the White House ceremony.
Biden's action reversed a decision by President Donald Trump that opened for mining and other development hundreds of thousands of acres of rugged lands sacred to Indigenous peoples and home to ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.
The Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in southern Utah encompass more than 3.2 million acres — an area nearly the size of Connecticut — and were created by Democratic administrations under a century-old law that allows presidents to protect sites considered historic, geographically or culturally important.
Restoring the monuments' boundaries and protections restores their integrity, upholds efforts to honor the federal trust responsibility to tribal nations and conserves the lands and waters for future generations, Biden said.
Hopi Chairman Timothy L. Nuvangyaoma said he is "happy" and "grateful for the advocacy of all those related to protecting Bears Ears and for the Hopi tribe" because it means a lot to the clan memberships.
"For Hopi, this is a significant step forward and the Biden administration did make some commitments to listen to Native America and Biden’s actions does prove that it is happening. We do need to protect these sacred sites that not only the Hopi tribe but other tribes find significant within their history."
The chairman said he and the vice chairman will be headed to Washington, D.C.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous Cabinet secretary, traveled to Utah in April to tour the area before preparing a formal recommendation to President Biden.
Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, visited the monuments, becoming the latest federal official to step into what has been a years-long public lands controversy.
She said Biden's action was not just about national monuments.
“It’s about this administration centering the voices of Indigenous people and affirming the shared stewardship of this landscape with tribal nations,'' she said. “The president’s action today writes a new chapter that embraces Indigenous knowledge, ensures tribal leadership has a seat at the table, and demonstrates that by working together we can build a brighter future for all of us.''
Bears Ears in particular was an important site to protect, Biden said, noting that the 1.3-million acre site is the first national monument to be established at the request of federally recognized tribes. It is "a place of healing ... a place of reverence and a sacred homeland to hundreds of generations of native peoples,'' Biden said.
Biden called Grand Staircase Escalante “a place of unique and extraordinary geology” and noted that the 1.9-million acre site had been protected by presidential order for 21 years before Trump's 2017 order slashed the monument nearly in half. Trump cut Bears Ears by 85%, to just over 200,000 acres.
In a separate action, Biden also restored protections at a marine conservation area off the New England coast that has been used for commercial fishing under an order by Trump. A rules change approved by Trump allowed commercial fishing at the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument in the Atlantic Ocean, a nearly 5,000-square-mile area southeast of Cape Cod. Trump's action was heralded by fishing groups but derided by environmentalists who pushed Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to restore protections against fishing.
“There’s nothing like it in the world, because it’s unique biodiversity,'' Biden said of the marine monument. “Waters teeming with life with underwater canyons as deep as parts of the Grand Canyon. Underwater mountains as tall as the Appalachians. Marine scientists believe that this is a key to understanding life under the sea.''
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and other Republicans expressed disappointment in Biden's decision to restore the Utah monuments, where red rocks reveal petroglyphs and cliff dwellings and distinctive buttes bulge from a grassy valley. Trump invoked the century-old Antiquities Act to cut 2 million acres from the two monuments. Restrictions on mining and other energy production a “massive land grab” that “should never have happened,” Trump said in revoking the protections.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said Biden had “squandered the opportunity to build consensus” and find a permanent solution for the monuments. “Yet again, Utah’s national monuments are being used as a political football between administrations,” Romney said.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said Biden's restoration of the monuments shows his dedication to “conserving our public lands and respecting the voices of Indigenous Peoples.”
“It’s time to put Trump’s cynical actions in the rear-view mirror,” Grijalva said.
Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group, said she hopes Biden's actions mark an initial step toward his goal of conserving at least 30% of U.S. lands and ocean by 2030.
Trump's cuts attracted widespread news coverage and increased national attention to Bears Ears, Rokala and others said. They called on the federal government to boost funding to manage the landscape and handle growing crowds at the two sites.
"In some ways the hard work is ahead of us now, as we turn our attention to planning, co-management and public education,'' said Joe Neuhof, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a Utah conservation group.
Haaland, in her remarks, said Indian tribes have long “sung and spoken in unison to protect” Bears Ears, which she called a “sacred place” and "a living landscape.''
Bears Ears “is a place where you can stand in the doorway of a home where a family who lived thousands of years ago left behind a legacy of love and conservation for a place that sustained them for countless generations,'' she said. “Stories of existence, celebration, survival and reverence are etched into the sandstone canyon walls. Sacred sites are dotted across the desert mesas.''
Former President Barack Obama proclaimed Bears Ears a national monument in 2016, 20 years after President Bill Clinton moved to protect Grand Staircase-Escalante. Bears Ears was the first site to receive the designation at the specific request of tribes.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which pushed for the restoration, said Biden did the right thing. The coalition includes the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe.
“For us, the monument never went away,'' said Shaun Chapoose, a coalition member and chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee. “We will always return to these lands to manage and care for our sacred sites, waters and medicines.”
The Trump administration’s reductions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante paved the way for potential coal mining and oil and gas drilling on lands that were previously off-limits. However, activity was limited because of market forces.
Biden's decision to restore protections at the marine monument came down to environmental groups having a stronger lobby than fishing advocates, said Bob Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, a domestic seafood industry group.
“Anyone who likes fresh local swordfish, tuna, lobster and crabmeat should be very angry with the Harris-Biden Administration today," Vanasse said.
Indian Country Today's Kolby KickingWoman contributed to this report.