Biden restores monument borders, drawing Utah Republicans’ ire

Biden's reversal of Trump decision likely to set off legal fight

Two hikers hike in Natural Bridges National Monument, which borders the Bears Ears National Monument on June 15, 2019, outside Blanding, Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images)
Two hikers hike in Natural Bridges National Monument, which borders the Bears Ears National Monument on June 15, 2019, outside Blanding, Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images)
Posted October 8, 2021 at 9:15am

The Biden administration said it would restore the boundaries of three national monuments former President Donald Trump shrank during his term in office, hewing to a campaign promise and heeding pressure from environmental, conservation and indigenous advocates.

In a statement late Thursday, the White House said President Joe Biden would sign proclamations on Friday, three days before Indigenous Peoples’ Day, restoring the boundaries and federal protections for the Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts national monuments.

The decision is likely to set off a pitched legal battle with Utah, a conservative state where the federal government owns 63 percent of the land.

Trump shrank the boundaries of two of the sites — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, both of which are in Utah — and lifted a ban, in the spring of 2020, on commercial fishing in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monument, a 4,913-square-mile patch in New England waters.

The White House said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who went to Utah and met with local residents near the monuments, recommended the restorations, which the state’s all-Republican delegation denounced.

Setting aside federal lands and waters for long-term protection as natural buffers against human-caused climate change has been a central goal of the Biden administration during its first months in office, and expanding Bears Ears and Grand Staircase to their original sizes was a long-held goal of public lands advocates.

The Biden administration has set a goal of setting aside 30 percent of U.S. land and water by 2030, an objective congressional Republicans have criticized as a land grab.

Through the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law that allows presidents to establish national monuments due to the historical, scientific or cultural value of lands, Trump cut the size of Bears Ears by millions of acres. But Trump's revised boundaries also added 12,000 acres to the map of the original monument, which former President Barack Obama established in 2016. Those additional acres from Trump will be retained in the new monument designation, the Biden administration said.

Hours after being sworn in, Biden directed Interior to review decisions Trump made to shrink the size of or waive environmental protections at the three sites.

Infuriating environmentalists and congressional Democrats, Trump shrank the original boundaries of Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by roughly 50 percent.

“President Biden’s decision to restore full federal protection to Bears Ears, Grand Staircase Escalante and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monuments shows this administration’s commitment to conserving our public lands and respecting the voices of Indigenous Peoples,” Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. “It’s time to put Trump’s cynical actions in the rear-view mirror, restore rightful protections, and restart the Bears Ears co-management arrangement with the tribes who have held this place sacred since time immemorial.”

The Bureau of Land Management intends to assign additional rangers to the Bears Ears region and to support co-management of the site with native tribes, the White House said.

Haaland visited Bears Ears in April, prompting Republican Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah to say the state would likely sue the federal government if it reinstates the original boundaries and protections of both monuments in its borders.

Cox said Biden’s choice to expand the monuments leads to uncertainty. “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,” Cox said in a statement.

Through its reductions of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase in 2017, the Trump administration cleared the way for possible coal mining and petroleum extraction in regions that had been safeguarded from industry activities under the legal shields of both monuments.

In a joint statement, the Utah congressional delegation called Biden’s move to reinstate the original boundaries a “devastating blow” to “resolve the longstanding dispute” over the management and size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase.

“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,” the delegation said. “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.”

Still used for tribal ceremonies, Bears Ears is a sacred site to the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes and contains archeologically significant sites that date back to 11,000 B.C.

“The historical connection between Indigenous peoples and Bears Ears is undeniable,” Haaland said. “Our Native American ancestors sustained themselves on the landscape since time immemorial and evidence of their rich lives is everywhere one looks.”