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Biden expected to restore original boundaries of Bears Ears, Grand Staircase monuments

Move assailed by Utah politicians

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Anasazi ruins are pictured in Mule Canyon in the Shash Jaa Unit of Bears Ears National Monument.

Anasazi ruins that are over 700 years old are pictured in Mule Canyon in the Shash Jaa Unit of Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County on Friday, April 9, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The ball is now in a different political court over Utah monument boundaries, with President Joe Biden expected on Friday to reverse a decision by the Trump administration to downsize Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Biden will sign an executive order upending then-President Donald Trump’s December 2017 decision to shrink the boundaries, which happened much to the applause of conservative Utah leaders and rural commissioners and to the dismay of environmental activists and Native American tribes.

“President Biden’s decision to expand the monuments is disappointing, though not surprising,” said a statement released by Gov. Spencer J. Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Attorney General Sean Reyes, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.

“For the past 10 months, we have consistently offered to work with the Biden administration on a permanent, legislative solution, one that would end the perpetual enlarging and shrinking of these monuments and bring certainty to their management. Our goal has been to make lasting progress on managing our public lands for the benefit of all those who use them, particularly those who live on and near those lands.”

Their statement went on to emphasize they expected more collaboration from the national government.

“We expected and hoped for closer collaboration between our state and national leaders, especially on matters that directly impact Utah and our citizens. The president’s decision to enlarge the monuments again is a tragic missed opportunity — it fails to provide certainty as well as the funding for law enforcement, research, and other protections which the monuments need and which only Congressional action can offer.”

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee said he talked to Biden on Thursday.

“I told him the monument announcement runs against Utahns’ wishes. I explained that his decision is hurtful and contrary to the Antiquities Act’s intention. I offered to work with him on a permenant (sic) legislative fix that would protect Utahns’ interest,” he posted on Twitter.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said late Thursday she was excited to be at the White House with Biden for the announcement regarding the boundary restorations and to serve as an example for students she teaches.

“It is so exciting standing behind my president, supporting this,” she said.

Biden’s expected announcement comes after an April visit by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to Utah to review the landscapes of the monuments and a subsequent submission of the Interior Department’s recommendations to Biden.

Conservative Utah politicians who had urged boundary reductions when Trump was in office said that, from the get-go, Haaland’s visit was a token gesture to feign an open-minded look at locals’ concerns.

That assertion was underscored with the anticipated decision on Friday, with the Utah delegation releasing a harsh statement.

“President Biden is delivering a devastating blow to the ongoing efforts by our delegation, along with state, local, and tribal leaders, to find a permanent, legislative solution to resolve the longstanding dispute over the boundaries and management of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments,” it read.

“Rather than take the opportunity to build unity in a divided region and bring resources and lasting protections to sacred antiquities by seeking a mutually beneficial and permanent legislative solution, President Biden fanned the flames of controversy and ignored input from the communities closest to these monuments. We will continue to support efforts to ensure that our monuments’ boundaries and management reflect the unique stakeholder interest and uses in the area, but today’s “winner take all” mentality moved us further away from that goal.”  

In December 2017, Trump traveled to Utah to announce he was shrinking both monuments’ boundaries after he had sent his own interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, to visit the landscapes to make a determination.

Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock said it was an aha moment for him when it came to politics.

“It was the first time in history that all of us could ever remember the state of Utah making a request to an administration and having it honored like that,” he said.

Utah House Democrats commended Biden for using his authority to restore the monuments to their original boundaries.

“The vast majority of Utahns recognize the urgent need for protecting these majestic places. And while some have urged a legislative solution over using the Antiquities Act, too many opportunities have been passed up to do the right thing,” they said in a statement. “To continue to leave these cherished places vulnerable to further defacement and looters is unacceptable. The time for action has come.”

Environmental groups also applauded the planned reduction.

“Thank you, President Biden. You have listened to Indigenous tribes and the American people and ensured these landscapes will be protected for generations to come,” said the Center for Western Priorities’ executive director Jennifer Rokala. “The cultural and paleontological resources within the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase landscapes are too important to leave at risk.”

Utah has vowed to sue. 

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President Donald Trump signs proclamations to scale back Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Dec. 4, 2017.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said the Biden decision, while expected, just throws the whole region into an abyss of uncertainty when it comes to land management, funding and the rights of locals.

“I understand you have the power to do it, you are going to do it, but why don’t you do it the right way,” he implored the Biden administration. “Why don’t you provide funding for the Bureau of Land Management and San Juan County to deal with the impacts? Why do you not deal with those impacts rather than just mandate it? There will be huge impacts from tourism, and the BLM and the county are not prepared. You have to deal with emergency medical services, trash, search and rescue, but with no funding.”

Pollock, from Garfield County, said the monument had been actually better equipped to deal with tourism with a Grand Staircase management plan currently in place that was reasonable and allowed access in high-priority areas.

By taking out 1 million acres and leaving a million acres in, the Trump reduction made sense and still protected resources, he said.

“There is no rhyme or reason to take this back to the way this thing was,” he said. “The way it was before was 65% of the monument was covered by the 12 heartbeat rule. That meant no more than 12 heartbeats were allowed, be it people, horses or dogs. That is what is so sad.”

The center’s Rokala countered that restoration of the boundaries is best for land protections and Utah’s economy.

“National parks and monuments have become the backbone of the economy in southern Utah,” she said. “In the 25 years since Grand Staircase-Escalante was first protected, it has transformed the region into a hub for outdoor recreation. Interest in Bears Ears has similarly skyrocketed, ironically due to President Trump’s attempts to remove land protections.”

Rokala did agree with Bruce Adams on the need for additional financial resources.

“With full monument status back in place, Congress and the Interior Department need to manage and fund these landscapes to handle the growing crowds, so they’re properly protected for future generations,” she said.

Bruce Adams and other locals, however, don’t see a swath of resources opening up for the management of the monuments even though they are being upsized. And they don’t see an end to the political seesawing that comes from executive orders’ implementing boundaries or changing them with the stroke of a pen.

Those executive orders granting a U.S. president’s ability to declare new monuments come from the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law allowing them to designate areas as monuments to protect natural, cultural or scientific features.

The law specifies the monument designations should be in conformity with the “smallest area compatible,” to provide site protections — language which has led opponents of massive monument designations to decry their creation.

While Riebe said the Biden administration move on boundary restorations is the right thing, she acknowledges the turmoil it causes for local communities — and it has conflicted her.

“There is fatigue from this. It is something we need to recognize. This turn around does not help.”

She likened it to the tearing the “scab” off people who do not want it, but said the Trump administration was wrong when it reduced the boundaries.

“I do struggle with it going back and forth.”

That is where a Cottonwood Heights Democrat, a female, and a conservative male in rural San Juan County can at least can agree over this monumental decision.

Said Bruce Adams: “We are still in the pingpong mode. Whatever power is in power, everybody is going to lobby that particular party to change the monuments and it just creates uncertainty. What is going to stop another administration from doing just the opposite?”