Utah national monuments face dramatic reductions

Cutbacks to Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears spark protests and lawsuits.


In the largest repeal of protections for U.S. public lands ever, President Donald Trump signed two executive orders on Monday, Dec. 4 to dramatically downsize Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. “The families and communities of Utah know and love this land the best,” Trump told the crowd at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City before signing the proclamations, “and you know the best how to take care of your land.”

Trump’s executive orders scale back Grand Staircase-Escalante by nearly 50 percent and slice away roughly 85 percent of Bears Ears. Grand Staircase-Escalante, a monument designated over two decades ago but still locally contentious, will consist of three separate units totaling just over a million acres. Bears Ears will be reduced to two areas totaling just 228,700 acres. The monument was designated by President Barack Obama late last year and holds great cultural and historical significance to the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, Ute Indian and Ute Mountain Ute tribes.

These controversial monuments became focal points in the Interior Department’s review of 27 national monuments designated since 1996. The president spent less than three hours in Salt Lake before returning to Washington D.C. “I've come to Utah to take a very historic action to reverse federal overreach and restore the rights of this land to (Utah’s) citizens,” he said.

President Donald Trump hands a pen to Sen Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, after signing a proclamation to shrink the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments at the Utah State Capitol.
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

The announcement came amid criticism that Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke did not take into account the concerns of supporters of the monuments, including tribes, conservationists, business owners in gateway communities and other concerned citizens locally and nationwide. “Secretary Zinke and Utah politicians say that they have talked to tribes about the president’s decision, but none of our Council leaders, executives, or our Commissioners were contacted,” Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Tribe Cultural Preservation Office and a member of the Bears Ears Commission of Tribes, said in a statement. An outspoken faction of Utahns, including state lawmakers and county commissioners, strongly opposes the monuments, and those voices ultimately drove the president’s decision.                    

Thousands of monument supporters protested the reductions in front of the Capitol, both during Trump’s remarks and at a larger planned protest two days earlier. Utahns who support the reductions assembled to celebrate on Saturday in Monticello, county seat of San Juan County, where Bears Ears is located. 

Inside the Capitol, Utahns — including many conservative state and local leaders — filled the marbled rotunda, where murals depicting the state’s history reach the high ceiling. The audience, dotted with cowboy hats and red “Make America Great Again” caps, greeted Trump’s announcement with loud cheers. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who recently introduced a bill to overhaul the Antiquities Act, said this was “just the beginning.”

Several members of Aneth, the only Navajo chapter that opposes the monument, were also present, and expressed gratitude for Trump’s action. “We want the place left alone,” said Gina Jim, a member of the Aneth chapter, as several members of her family milled around the rotunda and posed for photos. Rebecca Benally, an Aneth member and San Juan County Commissioner, echoed decades of Sagebrush rebels when she spoke briefly at the event, calling the Bears Ears designation “nothing but a land grab.” Aneth is a local chapter, Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch later explained, comparable to a county within a state. Branch said if you want the perspective of the Navajo Nation — which overwhelmingly supports the monument — you go to the leaders elected by Navajo voters, including the president and vice president. All five tribes in the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition jointly filed a lawsuit against Trump and Zinke Monday evening.

Protesters yell as they are stopped from marching up State Street during President Donald Trump's announcement to eliminate vast portions of Utah's Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Laura Seitz/The Deseret News via AP

That perspective was heard Monday afternoon at a press conference in a downtown Salt Lake hotel. Jonathan Nez, Navajo Nation vice president, expressed fear that more artifacts would be stolen from the Bears Ears area, where looting has long been a problem. Trump, Nez noted, has many times said past presidents overstepped their authority in designating monuments. “Today, President Trump contradicted himself,” Nez said. “He’s overstepping his authority by amending a national monument designation.”

No president has modified the boundaries of a monument in the last 50 years, and the legality of Trump’s move has already been challenged by multiple lawsuits. Though much of the focus has been on Bears Ears, the modifications to Grand Staircase-Escalante have caused an uproar as well. Ten conservation groups, including the Sierra Club and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, have already filed a lawsuit charging that the president abused his power by stripping protection from broad swaths of the monument. The Conservation Lands Foundation, Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology filed a separate lawsuit, citing the monument’s recreational, paleontological and economic value. “No one will look back on this decision in 15, 25 or 50 years,” said Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance legal director Stephen Bloch in a press release, “and say Trump did the right thing by protecting less of this magnificent place.” 

In a press call before the announcement, Attorney General Branch noted that the five tribes who came together to push for the creation of Bears Ears have historically had differences. Bringing people together is part of the Bears Ears story. “These lands have incredible healing properties,” Branch said, “so it’s ironic that their protections now face destruction.” Shaun Chapoose, a member of the Ute Indian Tribe business committee, stood by the tribes’ efforts on Monday, steadfast determination clear on his face despite the day’s events. “No matter what he does,” Chapoose said, “history was made when we gathered as sovereign tribes and put aside our differences to benefit not just us but the citizens of the United States.”

Rebecca Worby is an editorial fellow at High Country News. 

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