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Utah sues federal government over Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante expansion

Utah politicians say Biden violated the Antiquities Act, accusing him of ‘repeated, abusive federal overreach’

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A section of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

A section of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is pictured on Friday, May 14, 2021. A powerful coalition of Utah politicians announced a lawsuit Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, challenging the Biden administration’s designation of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

A powerful coalition of Utah politicians announced a lawsuit Wednesday challenging the Biden administration’s designation of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

The complaint, filed by the state of Utah and Kane and Garfield counties, argues the monument’s designation constitutes “an abuse of the president’s authority under the Monuments and Antiquities Act.”

That act is not intended to declare entire landscapes as national monuments, and “does not authorize the president to declare generic and ubiquitous items or plants and animals as national monuments,” the lawsuit alleges.

Instead, the law directs the president to set aside the “smallest area compatible with the proper care and management,” according to the complaint.

Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante, which amount to a combined 3.23 million acres, do not fit that definition, Utah politicians allege.

And by giving the areas national monument status, which offers some of the most strict protections for federally managed land, the lawsuit argues Native American tribes are inhibited from “engaging in traditional cultural practices” while industry, including mineral extraction and ranching, is kneecapped.

Filed by Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, the suit is backed by the likes of Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, Reps. Chris Stewart, John Curtis, Burgess Owens and Blake Moore, Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Utah Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson, all Republicans.

The coalition issued a joint statement Wednesday that accuses the Biden administration of “repeated, abusive federal overreach” that hampers conservation efforts on the massive swath of southern Utah desert.

“These public lands and sacred sites are a stewardship that none of us take lightly. The archeological, paleontological, religious, recreational, and geologic values need to be harmonized and protected. Rather than guarding those resources, President Biden’s unlawful designations place them all at greater risk,” the statement reads.

The expanded monuments draw tourists from all over the country without “providing any of the tools necessary to adequately conserve and protect these resources,” the coalition argues.

The lawsuit is the latest in a yearslong game of political football that started in 1996 with President Bill Clinton creating Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Pressed by a tribal coalition made up of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni, President Barack Obama established Bears Ears National Monument in the waning days of his presidency.

The area is of deep spiritual significance for tribes in the American Southwest, with over 100,000 cultural and archeological sites scattered throughout its 1.9 million acres.

But many Utah politicians, industry leaders and locals in nearby towns opposed the move, and in 2017 former President Donald Trump slashed 1 million acres from Grand Staircase-Escalante and 228,000 acres from Bears Ears.

President Joe Biden restored both monuments in October 2021.

The move was praised by tribes, environmental groups and many Utahns. Public opinion is mixed, but a February survey by Colorado College suggests 60% of the state’s residents think the monument is “more of a good thing,” while 30% responded negatively. Roughly 6% had no opinion.

Politicians have been hinting at a legal battle since Biden restored the monuments. Cox in April 2021 said Utah would likely sue if the White House acted “unilaterally.”

The governor, along with members of Utah’s congressional delegation, have long asked for a congressional solution, a point reiterated Wednesday. That approach would “better guard the area’s resources by ensuring tribal access to sacred sites, providing federal agencies with the management tools and funding they need, channeling visitation into appropriate protected locations, and giving local communities the funding and flexibility they need to thrive economically,” they say.

“This would include collaboration from state and federal agencies, tribal nations, local governments, citizens, the legislature, and Utah’s congressional delegation,” the statement reads.

A number of public land advocacy and environmental groups decried the lawsuit Wednesday.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said Utah’s political leaders are “running roughshod over those who live closest to Utah’s national monuments — especially the tribes that have lived here since time immemorial.”

“From Gov. Cox on down, the continued anti-environment agenda of Utah politicians makes the Utah political delegation the most hostile to America’s public lands, of any state,” said Scott Groene, the group’s executive director. “At a time when climate change is creating drought and extreme weather events in Utah, Utah’s politicians are exacerbating the harm by trying to upend the very public land protections that play a critical role in mitigating the effects of climate change. Utah residents deserve better.”

And the Center for Western Priorities pushed back on the assertion made in the complaint that the designation runs counter to the Antiquities Act, pointing to similar land protections in Wyoming and Arizona.

“There is ample precedent for landscape-scale national monuments, in which the entire landscape is considered an ‘object of interest,’ such as the Grand Canyon,” a statement from the group reads. “The courts have in the past also refused to hear cases over landscape-scale monument designations, such as Jackson Hole National Monument” which is now part of Grand Teton National Park.