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Cottonwood Canyon in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is seen on Sept. 14, 2003.
Cottonwood Canyon in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is seen on Sept. 14, 2003.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

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GOP Utah leaders urge Biden to work with them on Bears Ears, Grand Staircase boundaries

Sen. Mike Lee questions Biden’s interior secretary nominee about views on national monument designations.

Utah’s congressional delegation and governor told President Joe Biden in a letter Tuesday that the state wants to be involved in his federal review of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments.

Also Tuesday, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, questioned the president’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior about her views on monument designations, specifically the ones in Utah.

Biden directed the Interior Department last month to conduct a review of the boundaries for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, both of which were created in a storm of controversy and then later reduced amid equal furor.

The Utah leaders, all Republicans, say they were disappointed that Biden did not invite them to talk about the monuments before announcing the review. The said they hope and expect closer collaboration on issues that directly impact Utah and its residents.

“Unilateral monument decisions — whether creating, expanding or contracting — have a long history of generating resentment and bitterness nationally and among communities in Utah,” the letter reads.

Lee asked interior secretary nominee Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee whether she believes local communities should have a role in national monument decisions.

“I think with national monument designations, of course, it’s folks on the ground, stakeholders, everyone deserves to have a say in those,” she said.

Lee said monuments have become a “political football” in Utah, and are poised to become more of a political football tossed back and forth between parties.

Under the Antiquities Act, President Bill Clinton created the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996 and President Barack Obama designated the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears in 2016. President Donald Trump slashed Grand Staircase-Escalante to 1 million acres and broke Bears Ears into two separate areas totaling 228,700 acres in 2017 by the same law.

Lee asked Haaland whether the “ricochet effect” is a result of monuments not being broadly supported by both parties, particularly within the communities most immediately affected by them.

Haaland said that it has been her experience that most of the bills that come out of the House Natural Resources Committee have been more successful when they have been bipartisan.

“We need to make sure there is widespread local buy-in. We didn’t have that with Bears Ears in 2016. We didn’t have that with Grand Staircase 20 years earlier,” Lee said.

Lee said 28% of the land designated as national monuments in 40 states over the past 25 years is in Utah. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase added together are “larger than two Delawares.” He said the law limits the size of national monuments to the smallest area necessary to manage and care for the objects that need protection.

“Is that usually something that in one state it will be larger than two Delawares?” he asked.

Haaland said she’s jealous of the beautiful land in Utah and that she has visited Bears Ears. Lee interjected that the monument designation doesn’t make the land more beautiful.

“It does tend to make the communities that don’t support them impoverished, and that’s what concerns me,” Lee said.

In the letter to Biden, the Utah leaders say neither the original monument designations nor Trump’s reductions accomplished what they believe should be the most important goals for both the Biden administration and the state.

Those goals are to protect sensitive areas and cultural resources, including the use of law enforcement and educational resources to prevent irreparable damage, and provide long-term certainty and predictability for managing these lands.

“Changing the size of the monuments every four or eight years isn’t helpful for anyone who cares about the land, antiquities, and local communities,” they wrote.

Utah leaders say all options should be on the table to find a long-lasting, comprehensive solution that includes tribal involvement, local museums or interpretive sites and clarifying allowable uses such as where mineral development is and isn’t appropriate.

They say those can’t be accomplished by the Antiquities Act alone but require legislation in Congress.

“The consensus required for successful negotiation would prove an effective way to lower the temperature and allow for good faith progress on other challenges,” according to the letter.

Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa — a pro-monument organization — told the Deseret news last month that there should be a legislative solution to the Bears Ears question.

“My hope is that the review is done thoughtfully with regard to the global significance of this area and how critical these resources are, and also with regard to how we may have permanent protection so that this is not a political football that gets tossed back and forth every four years,” he said.

“In order for there to be a permanent solution, it would need some sort of congressional compromise. I won’t speculate on what that compromise would look like. ... It is a deeply contentious issue so it would certainly not be easy to have something like that happen.”

The letter is signed by Lee, Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Reps. Chris Stewart, John Curtis, Blake Moore and Burgess Owens, Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, House Speaker Brad Wilson, Senate President Stuart Adams and Attorney General Sean Reyes.

Those same leaders released a statement last month cautioning Biden that a review with predetermined results leading to an executive order enlarging the monuments’ boundaries would not solve the root of the problem and only deepen divisions in the country.

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