Utah files to support Trump’s diminished national monuments

Worried that the original monument designation may stand, Utah wants to jump into the fray.

 

Last week, Utah sought to legally intervene in support of President Donald Trump’s efforts to shrink two national monuments in the state. In two motions filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, lawyers for the state said they support the president’s decision to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. The original boundaries, they say, affect state interests, such as by devaluing nearby state lands and limiting Utah’s income from drilling on public lands.

Cedar Mesa is one of the areas that would be cut by the new Bears Ears National Monument boundaries.

Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante were created in 2016 and 1996, respectively, under the Antiquities Act, which empowers presidents to order broader protections for federal public lands. In 2017, following heavy lobbying by uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources, and a widely criticized Interior Department review, Trump issued executive orders that shrank Bears Ears by about 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by almost 50 percent. 

Opponents of the unprecedented orders, including tribal governments, conservation nonprofits and others, promptly sued. They demanded that the monuments be restored to their original sizes, citing the cultural, scientific and recreational value of the public lands. 

Earlier this year, Utah tried unsuccessfully to have the pending cases moved from the D.C. court to a district court in the state; now, it wants to join the lawsuits as a defendant. “The State has substantial interests, including sovereign interests, in the management of millions of acres of public land within its borders,” state lawyers say in the filings. They contend that if plaintiffs win their lawsuits and the original monument areas are upheld, that could “deprive the State of revenue and jeopardize the full use of the property rights it holds for the benefit of all Utahns.” But critics of the diminished boundaries point to the successful tourism generated by the monument designations and Utah’s national parks, all but one of which began as national monuments.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has previously denounced national monuments as “unjustified federal land grabs,” although the lands they encompass were already federal. Meanwhile, tribal nations who have used the land for thousands of years are plaintiffs in the lawsuits to restore the monuments’ original sizes.

Utah’s growing tourism and recreation economy also stands to benefit from the monuments. Even San Juan County, a defendant in the anti-shrinkage litigation, recently changed its marketing slogan to “Make it Monumental,” a nod to its role as an access point to both Bears Ears and Monument Valley. Still, if its filing is admitted, Utah will soon be bolstering the Trump administration’s anti-monument crusade in court.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News. Email her at [email protected]

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