Policy

Obama Declares Bears Ears National Monument While Utah Lawmakers Pledge Fight

The president will designate two new national monuments

A petroglyph in the Comb Ridge section of the Bears Ears area. (Photo by Josh Ewing via Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Council)

Retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is getting one last victory from President Barack Obama.

But the Nevada Democrat’s joy will surely be met with matching outrage from the Republican senators in neighboring Utah after the Obama administration announced on Wednesday the designation of two long-rumored new national monuments under the Antiquities Act.

Obama’s executive actions will designate monuments at the Bears Ears area in Utah and Gold Butte in Nevada.

“Today, I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes,” the president said in a statement. “Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes.”

Reid has pressed Obama to protect Gold Butte, an area of almost 300,000 acres in Nevada that features petroglyphs and ghost towns. Land in that part of Nevada has also been the habitat for the threatened desert tortoise and the cattle of controversial rancher Cliven Bundy, who got into an armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing fees.

At an August news conference in Las Vegas, Reid said that the Gold Butte designation “will happen before the first of the year,“ The Spectrum newspaper reported.

Bears Ears Fight

But it’s the Bears Ears designation that will get the bulk of the attention, and the ire of many state and local officials in Utah. Obama is designating 1.35 million acres of federal lands, according to the White House, which includes ancestral grounds for several tribes.

The land will be withdrawn from new energy exploration and mining development, the White House confirmed to reporters.

“I want to make clear, if heaven forbid this does happen, I will work tirelessly with the incoming Trump administration to make sure that this national monument never gets off the ground; to make sure it is undone, that is defunded, unwritten, rewritten, repealed, whatever it is that we have to do to undo it,” Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee said Dec. 13 as part of a Facebook Live discussion.

In a call with reporters, Christy Goldfuss, the managing director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said that it was the administration’s view that President-elect Donald Trump cannot unilaterally overturn the designation and eliminate the national monuments without an act of Congress.

“The Antiquities Act gives the president the authority to create monuments, but does not provide explicit authority to undo them, and since the Antiquties Act was passed in 1906, both Republican and Democratic presidents have established monuments to protect our rich heritage for historic and scientific wonders,” Goldfuss said. “No president has actually undone a monument created by a prior president, and courts at all levels have broadly upheld the president’s authority to designate national monuments under the act.”

Just before Christmas, Lee joined fellow Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch and other elected officials at an event at the Utah state Capitol to present a united front against the monument designation. The Utah senators had also introduced legislation seeking to exempt their state from designations.

Hatch said in a statement that his support for confirming Rep. Ryan Zinke to be Trump’s Interior secretary could hinge on Zinke’s views about overturning the designation.

“As every Utahn knows, land-use decisions should be made only through a collaborative process — a process like the Public Lands Initiative — that involves those who actually live on the land and know how to manage it. There are real benefits to a thoughtfully crafted legislative approach, and I remain committed to working with my colleagues to pursue a legislative solution when Congress reconvenes next month,” Hatch said.

Goldfuss said the Obama administration gave as much time as possible for House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and fellow Rep. Jason Chaffetz to advance legislation to protect the Bears Ears and the region.

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