Undoing actions taken under the Trump administration, with the stroke of a pen Oct. 8, President Joe Biden restored the expansive boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument from 201,000 acres to 1.37 million acres and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument from 1 million acres to 1.87 million acres and restored management conditions to the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in the northwest Atlantic Ocean.
Based on powers granted to the president under the Antiquities Act first used more than a century ago by Teddy Roosevelt, Biden justified the return of the land into federal protection as part of the administration’s promise to children to “leave this world a little better than we found it,” while some leaders criticized the actions for abandoning attempts to find a more long-term, collaborative solution.
In a release from USDA, the agency notes President Trump’s actions in 2017 to modify the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments “amounted to an unprecedented rollback of conservation protections for America’s lands and waters, constituting the largest reductions in the size of national monument designations in U.S. history. His action to revoke the prohibition on commercial fishing in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in 2020 was likewise unprecedented,” USDA says. “Multiple pending lawsuits challenging President Trump’s modifications to the three national monuments have raised serious and fundamental questions as to whether a president has authority to reduce boundaries or core protections in a way that is tantamount to revocation of a monument.”
While speaking at the North Lawn, Biden recognized that the decisions on national monuments have shared Republican and Democrat support. “The protection of public lands must not become a pendulum that swings back and forth depending on who’s in public office,” Biden says.
NCBA says conservation loses with federal control
However, some were critical of the actions that take away local-control and conservation efforts on the ground. Biden said as a matter of courtesy, he spoke with both the senators from Utah. “They didn’t agree with what I was doing, but they were gracious and polite about it,” Biden recalls.
Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Reps. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, John Curtis, R-Utah, Burgess Owens, R-Utah, and Blake Moore, R-Utah, issued the a joint statement calling the action a devastating blow to the ongoing efforts by their delegation, along with state, local and tribal leaders, to find a permanent, legislative solution to resolve the longstanding dispute over the boundaries and management of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
“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 Utah delegation says. “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.’”
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and Public Lands Council criticized the action after hearing for months promises from the administration of working collaboratively with state governments and local communities. By ignoring efforts to reach a constructive, permanent solution, the administration has prolonged the back-and-forth political football that occurs with national monument boundaries during each change of administration, NCBA and PLC state in a release.
"Rural states and communities across America are, sadly, all too familiar with the federal government's routine of feigned partnership. Monument designations may bring the White House closer to scoring 'conservation' points on paper but in reality, they lead to the kind of preservation strategies that we know from experience do not support healthy ecosystems long-term," says NCBA Executive Director of Natural Resources and PLC Executive Director Kaitlynn Glover. “Conservation requires the help and investment of knowledgeable land users, local residents, and state leaders who can perform the day-to-day work of maintaining landscapes and ecosystems.”
Designations made under the Antiquities Act — now more than a century old — prohibit many land management tools. Restricting local communities' ability to respond quickly and nimbly to historic drought, record-breaking wildfire seasons, and a host of other environmental challenges is not a sustainable strategy for land management, NCBA and PLC add. The proclamation expanding Bears Ears to a total 1.36 million acres and Grand Staircase-Escalante to 1.87 million acres, is directly in conflict with the Antiquities Act’s direction to designate the “smallest area compatible” with the desired protections, the cattle groups note.
Expanding national monument designations
Bears Ears National Monument is the first national monument designated at the request of Tribal Nations. In 2016, President Barack Obama established the approximately 1.35 million-acre national monument in Utah, managed by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. At the end of 2017, President Trump issued a proclamation that reduced the national monument by 1.15 million acres, or nearly 85%. The revised boundaries included 12,000 acres of land that were not contained within the original monument.
“The Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah conserves one of the most significant cultural landscapes in the United States, with thousands of archaeological sites and important areas of spiritual significance to Native American people in the region,” says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
The Bears Ears National Monument is characterized by deep sandstone canyons, broad desert mesas, towering monoliths, forested mountaintops dotted with lush meadows, and the striking Bears Ears Buttes. The area has a tradition of ranching and provides world class outdoor recreation opportunities that drive a growing travel and tourism economy.
The action taken by Biden restores the original boundaries of the national monument and retains the 12,000 acres added by President Trump, which contain objects of historic and scientific significance.
Anna Peterson, executive director of The Mountain Pact says, “Over 140 local elected officials in the Mountain Pact network across the West, including Utah mayors, council members, and county commissioners, are overjoyed that President Biden has finally restored protections for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. It is past time to finally start real collaborative management with Tribes at Bears Ears and for restored protections for these irreplaceable cultural, historic, and natural treasures. If we are going to accomplish the administration’s America the Beautiful goal, we must rapidly accelerate efforts to restore and conserve more public lands and waters.”