President Joe Biden, as he promised during his campaign, restored Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments to their original boundaries in a White House ceremony Friday flanked by supporters, including Native American tribal leaders of the Bears Ears coalition and some Utah Democrats.
“This may be the easiest thing I have done as president. I mean it,” Biden said, emphasizing the sacred nature of Bears Ears and its ties to Native American tribes.
He underscored the biodiversity found at Grand Staircase and its bountiful amount of fossils and cultural artifacts.
“Today I am signing a proclamation to restore it to its full glory,” he said.
He said he spoke to both Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, about his decision on the Utah monuments, and while they told him they did not agree with him, he said they were “respectful.”
Right before he signed the order, Biden talked of a little girl who implored him to protect Bears Ears and on Friday he said he was fulfilling that promise.
“The protection of public lands must not become a pendulum depending on who is in office,” he said — even though that is what critics of monument designations say it has become.
The action came a day after Utah’s conservative political leaders universally condemned what they knew was a foregone conclusion. In an op-ed for the Deseret News published Friday, Utah’s congressional delegation called Biden’s move a “monumental insult.”
Locally, monument supporters celebrated Biden’s actions.
Cheers, applause, and smiling faces after @POTUS @JoeBiden announces restoration of #BearsEars and #GrandStaircase to their original sizes at the Radisson in downtown SLC @kslnewsradio pic.twitter.com/fLxAVaUIWD— Nick Wyatt (@NickWyattNews) October 8, 2021
Tribal leaders in southern Utah sing and bless the area in Moki Dugway, celebrating President Biden’s restoration of two national monuments. pic.twitter.com/NdToWCe9dX— Paul Nelson (@KSLPaul) October 8, 2021
In the signing ceremony, Biden also restored the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, a nearly 5,000-square-mile area southeast of Cape Cod that had been designated in 2016 and subsequently overturned.
The move over Utah’s monuments brought swift condemnation by Utah conservatives, who have vowed to sue over the action and praise from environmental groups that had castigated former President Donald Trump when he greatly reduced the boundaries nearly four years ago.
I offered to work with @POTUS on a permanent legislative fix. Instead, he opted to ignore the people who live near these monuments and do it alone. His choice today continues the pendulum's swing. https://t.co/2QHXIrmBEW— Mike Lee (@SenMikeLee) October 8, 2021
Controversy over the two monument designations has dogged the state for years — decades in the case of the Grand Staircase — and is not likely to be resolved anytime soon with this latest executive action stoking the flames even more.
Here are some quick takeaways on why this matters so much to Utah, public land advocates, nongovernmental organizations, ranchers and scientists, and many others.
1. How much of Utah is public land?
More than 66% of Utah is owned by the federal government, creating complicated land use issues and what some critics say is inequity because that land ownership comes with restrictions and does not provide a tax base.
On the flip side, while that land is in Utah and locals complain about its ownership, the competing view is that the land belongs to all U.S. citizens to be enjoyed and protected, not used for such activities as ranching, mining or other traditional activities.
2. The Antiquities Act: What is it?
Utah and other states have long railed against the power of the executive branch wrapped up in the 1906 law called the Antiquities Act. It allows a U.S. president, via executive order, to unilaterally designate a monument to protect values on the ground.
The Antiquities Act allows the president to set aside public land as national monuments to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest,” in the smallest footprint to accomplish that mission.
Over the years, multiple members of Utah’s congressional delegation have sought to diminish that power because they contend it has been abused.
3. Why Utah’s designations are so contentious
“Arbitrary” and surprise designations, such as the 1996 move by President Bill Clinton to wrap up 1.9 million acres with the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, have stoked fierce opposition to monuments created by a U.S. president.
With Grand Staircase, it happened despite pleas in the middle of the night, and it particularly charred Utah leaders’ pride because Clinton made the announcement from the neighboring state of Arizona, without stepping foot on the land he was protecting.
The monument has become a treasure trove of paleontological resources, bursting with fossils, and is renowned for its wide-open scenic vistas contributing to the local tourist economy. But critics say the monument comes with a cost to the area’s tax base and the ability to tap natural resources.
4. Bears Ears and its cultural value
Bears Ears, at least, involved an on-the-ground look by then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who toured the region before making a recommendation to then-President Barack Obama.
Jewell met with tribal leaders pushing for the creation of a 1.9-million-acre monument to protect more than 100,000 cultural resources. She also met with local and state leaders opposed to the move.
The land is already federally owned, so opponents to the monument’s designation reasoned if the government would enforce the layer of laws already on the books, plus dedicate additional staff on the ground, that would be sufficient. Tribal leaders said it was imperative the monument status be achieved to recognize the sacred heritage and spiritual nature of the yawning landscape.
To no one’s real surprise, Obama designated the Bears Ears monument at 1.3 million acres in 2015.
5. The Trump effect
In December 2017, Trump acted to right the “wrong” perceived by so many of Utah’s conservative politicians, pressed into action, in particular, by who was then the country’s longest sitting senator: Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Trump obliterated Bears Ears, even in name, slashing it into two units called Indian Creek and Shash Jaa to a little more than 200,000 acres. He also pulled out 1 million acres from Grand Staircase-Escalante, a move that locals said represented the first time a sitting U.S. president had actually listened to them.
Immediately, Trump’s action to reduce the monument boundaries was met with lawsuits by groups that contend a president does not have the authority to undercut a designation made by a previous administration. When Biden assumed office, he sent Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to Utah to conduct a review.
The result is what we’re seeing today play out at the White House, a path of action that promises to be as rocky and as sinuous as the ground in contention in Utah.