Will Joe Biden restore 2 million acres to Bears Ears?

Then-U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert walked past protesters during a visit to the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah in May 2017. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Interior Department, File)

The Associated Press

Both sides agree there needs to be finality regarding the Utah national monument

The Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — With Joe Biden’s capture of the White House comes the likelihood that Utah’s two big national monuments will be restored to their original boundaries, reopening yet another front in the West’s public lands wars.

Just as President Donald Trump invoked the Antiquities Act to cut 2 million acres from the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monuments, Biden will hold the power to restore the monuments designated by two Democratic predecessors, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Utah’s Republican leaders had hailed Trump’s move in 2017 to slash the monuments. Absent a repeal of the Antiquities Act, however, that victory may prove to be fleeting. The landmark 1906 Act authorizes any future president to put them back on the map.

Several American Indian tribes are asking the courts to reverse the order that reduced Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County by 85 percent.

During the 2020 campaign, Biden signaled he would do just that, while also prioritizing landscape conservation more broadly.

“On Day 1, Biden will also begin building on the Obama-Biden Administration’s historic conservation efforts by issuing an executive order to conserve 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030, focusing on the most ecologically important lands and waters,” states the Biden campaign’s website. “His administration will work with tribal governments and Congress to protect sacred sites and public lands and waters with high conservation and cultural values.”

This suggests even more Antiquities Act designations could be on the horizon for Utah and other Western states.

Against the wishes of Utah’s GOP political leaders, then-President Bill Clinton designated the Grand Staircase monument in 1996. Twenty years later, President Barack Obama designated the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears at the request of five American Indian tribes with ancestral ties to the lands surrounding the monument’s namesake twin buttes rising above Cedar Mesa.

In what was seen as a favor to then-Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, Trump reduced these monuments to 1 million acres and 202,000 acres, respectively. Now, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert urges the incoming administration to not act unilaterally.

“We hope that in lieu of an executive order changing the status of the monument, a Biden administration would work with Utah and Congress to pursue a legislative resolution to Bears Ears that would give all stakeholders certainty about the size of the monument and provide actual law enforcement funding to protect the fragile antiquities it contains,” he said through spokeswoman Anna Lehnardt.

The re-enlargement of the Grand Staircase monument would upset commissioners in Garfield and Kane counties, but plenty of area businesses and residents would celebrate the move.

Regardless of who occupies the White House, no decision on the management of public lands can be final without the involvement of Congress, according to Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican whose Utah district includes Grand Staircase.

“Without congressional action, we run the risk of the boundaries being constantly changed, the management plans being incessantly rewritten, and perpetual uncertainty for everyone who cares about the management of the land,” said Stewart, who lobbied hard for the Staircase’s reduction. “That’s why I introduced the Grand Staircase Escalante Enhancement Act, to make the current boundaries of the monuments permanent and, most importantly, to give Utahns a voice on how it will be managed.”

SEE RELATED STORY: Million-dollar campaign launched to protect Bears Ears

This sentiment was echoed by Utah Rep. John Curtis, whose district includes Bears Ears, arguing that Biden would violate his promise to be a president to everyone if he enlarges that monument through executive action.

“It’s also a continuation of the ‘ping-ponging’ back and forth with boundaries that is a symptom of misused presidential authority,” Curtis said. “For the last three years, I’ve worked hard to establish the trust needed with Native American tribes and local residents to bring long-term certainty to San Juan County through federal legislation.”

Soon after taking office in 2017, Trump ordered a broad review of all big national monuments designated since 1996, but in the end he shrunk only the two in Utah. Several environmental, science and tribal groups, including Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, filed lawsuits asking a federal judge to reverse the two orders, arguing the Antiquities Act does not authorize presidents to remove protections designated by a prior administration.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, based in Washington, D.C., has yet to rule in the consolidated monument lawsuits, where both sides have briefed their arguments.

Should the monuments be restored, Berry insisted the Bureau of Land Management should scrap its recently adopted management plans for the Grand Staircase and the 900,000 acres pulled out of the monument. And the new Bears Ears management plan should be replaced as soon as practical, according to Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa.

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The Abajo Mountains are among the numerous sacred sites once contained in the Bears Ears National Monument.(Tim Peterson, Courtesy of Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition)

Whatever Biden decides to do with the monuments, both sides agree there needs to be finality. Even today, three years after Trump shrunk Bears Ears, the signs the BLM commissioned to mark the road entrances to the monument remain in storage.

“Bears Ears is an internationally significant cultural landscape, and it deserves better than to be turned into a political football every election season,” Ewing said. Visitors are flooding Cedar Mesa, Valley of the Gods and other fragile lands stripped from Bears Ears, but the BLM lacks the resources to adequately manage that traffic.

“I certainly would hope that there are enough statesmen and women in the room to find a permanent solution that would bring some certainty for the land and for tribes and for local people,” Ewing said. “If we don’t do that, I fear that the land’s going to continue to be the collateral damage of the ongoing controversy and political battles.”

Meanwhile, an international cultural conservation fund has put $300,000 toward a $1 million campaign to help protect and restore areas the monument.

The World Monuments Fund donated the money in late July, saying Bears Ears is a world-class “irreplaceable treasure,” one of a select group of architectural and cultural sites that span the history of human civilization.

Bears Ears is the first national monument created at the request of and with input from Native American governments, according to a Washington Post article.

The foundation added Bears Ears to its 2020 World Monuments Watch list of threatened world treasures, saying “sacred land and sites of North American Indigenous people … have been put at risk of desecration.” Other sites on the list include Notre-Dame de Paris, and Venice’s Italian Renaissance architecture. Bears Ears is one of 25 such sites included on the World Monuments Watch list. It was selected from more than 250 nominations.

One sign of the deep ties between the landscape and Native Americans is that creation myths of the Hopi Nation, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, and Zuni Tribe refer to Bears Ears landmarks.

The area has an estimated 100,000 archeological sites from 12,500 to 13,000 years ago. The sites include cliff dwellings, rock paintings, and artifacts that are sacred to many Native Americans. Tribes still use the area for ceremonies, and to gather plants for basket-making, medicine and food.

Six tribes founded a Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in 2015 to work on multiple fronts to protect and promote the region. Supporters successfully lobbied President Obama to create the Bears Ears National Monument in 2016.

Friends of Cedar Mesa, a Utah-based nonprofit, was formed 10 years ago expressly to conserve Bears Ears area resources. The group said Trump acted illegally in removing the protections enacted by President Obama.

The Washington Post reported the Trump administration’s reduction had the support of Utah officials and some local residents. “His rollback also followed a uranium firm’s concerted lobbying, an effort led by Andrew Wheeler, who now heads the Environmental Protection Agency.”

The most recent management plan for the area would allow oil and gas development, cattle grazing and installation of roads and utility lines, as well as recreational areas and campgrounds.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist, contributed to this story.

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