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MOAB, UT – On Oct. 8, President Joe Biden signed three proclamations restoring the former boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, and restoring protections to Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monuments, which had been reduced by the previous administration.
Conservation groups, tribal entities, and local governments applauded the move; Utah Governor Spencer Cox expressed frustration and disappointment.
Bears Ears National Monument
An Oct. 7 statement from the White House said Biden will restore the Bears Ears National Monument boundaries as they were established in 2016, while also retaining the protections established for an additional 11,200 acres that were added at the same time that BENM was reduced in 2017.
Bears Ears National Monument, located in San Juan County, has been politically contentious since it was designated by former president Barack Obama in 2016. The monument originally encompassed 1.3 million acres of canyon country that also harbors thousands of archaeological sites. The decision to designate the monument was largely compelled by the efforts of the Utah Diné Bikéyah and the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, an Indigenous advocacy group. Utah state leaders and many San Juan County residents opposed the monument, and the resulting tensions received national attention.
In 2017, former president Donald Trump reduced the size of BENM by 85%, pleasing opponents of the monument and disappointing or angering monument advocates. The new boundaries outlined two discontiguous monument units totaling just over 200,000 acres. Conservation groups and tribes initiated lawsuits against the Trump administration.
Part of Biden’s campaign platform was a renewed dedication to conservation and the environment. Both Moab City and Grand County approved letters in support of the administration’s intention to revisit BENM and GSENM and consider reinstating their original boundaries. This spring, newly appointed Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, former New Mexico Congressional Representative and a member of the Laguna Pueblo, visited Utah and met with stakeholders regarding both the Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante national monuments. [See “Interior Secretary Haaland visits Bears Ears, Grand Staircase,” Apr. 13 edition. -ed.]
“This has been a special trip, and I deeply appreciate the many people who took time to share their wisdom, perspectives, and prayers with me,” Haaland said in a statement released following her visit.
The White House statement says, “Restoring the Monument’s boundaries and conditions restores its integrity, upholds efforts to honor the federal trust responsibility to Tribal Nations, and conserves these lands and waters for future generations.”
The statement also promises that the administration will support the monument by ensuring it has adequate staffing and funding, and that future management of BENM will include tribal participation.
The Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, which includes representatives from Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Zuni Tribe, said in a statement that the group looks forward to a model of collaborative management.
“In this new model, the traditional knowledge and place-based conservation strategies of Tribal communities will play a significant role in shaping efforts to conserve and plan a resilient future for this landscape that we all hold dear,” the statement says. Woody Lee, director of Utah Diné Bikéyah, said in a statement that the UDB celebrates the restoration.
“We also acknowledge the challenging times our native communities are having right now which makes this achievement bittersweet but a welcome and hopeful change for the future. We appreciate all the support and hard work of many people, organizations, leaders, and supporters who have helped advance our mission of healing the land and the people,” he said.
Members of the Rural Utah Project, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering underrepresented voices, issued a statement celebrating the restoration of Bears Ears.
“The restoration of these monuments has touched so many lives and people — and that’s why it’s never been about land,” the statement says. “It’s been about the people who call them home, who work on them, and who pray towards them… Bears Ears is about healing and the acknowledgement of First Nations who have called it home.”
The Utah Governor’s office, in contrast, issued a statement lamenting the restoration of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Including Cox, Lieutenant Governor Deidre M. Henderson, Attorney General Sean Reyes, President J. Stuart Adams and Speaker Brad Wilson in the sentiment, the statement refers to Utah leaders’ requests for a legislative, rather than executive, solution to public lands disputes. They argue that approach would have created more durable policy backed up by assured funding.
“We expected and hoped for closer collaboration between our state and national leaders, especially on matters that directly impact Utah and our citizens,” reads the statement from the governor’s office. “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.”
Utah representatives in Congress also opposed the restoration of BENM and GSENM.
In a joint statement on Oct. 7, Utah senators Mitt Romney and Mike Lee and Utah representatives Chris Stewart, John Curtis, Burgess Owens, and Blake Moore said that Biden “is delivering a devastating blow to the ongoing efforts by our 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.”
The statement alleges Biden has “fanned the flames of controversy and ignored input from the communities closest to these monuments.”
Grand Staircase-Escalante and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has also been a flashpoint for tensions over public lands in Utah. Located in Kane and Garfield counties, the monument was first designated by then-president Bill Clinton in 1996, and was contentious from the beginning. Conservationists favored the move; many Utahns saw it as obstructing the local economy, especially extraction industries which were limited by the designation. Trump slashed the GSENM boundaries in 2017 along with the BENM boundaries, prompting lawsuits against the administration.
Conservation groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance praised Biden’s restoration of GSENM, along with Bears Ears. SUWA Director Scott Groene said, “It’s hard to describe the relief and joy our members are feeling right now knowing these places and their irreplaceable objects are on the path to healing after years of deliberate mismanagement and neglect under the prior administration.”
Representatives from scientific groups like the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and Archaeology Southwest also made statements in support of the restoration of the monuments.
Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument is off the coast of New England as the first U.S. national monument in the Atlantic Ocean. The area is a biodiversity “hotspot,” home to rare and endangered species of whales, sea turtles, and other wildlife. This designation, too, sparked conflict. Members of the fishing industry contested it in court, fearing it would hurt their business and claiming that the Antiquities Act of 1906, under which Obama created the monument, did not allow for the protection of bodies of water. The suit failed, but in 2020 Trump signed a proclamation lifting commercial fishing restrictions within the monument.
The Oct. 7 statement from Biden’s White House says, “Restoring the Monument’s conditions will restore its integrity, expand the opportunity for unique scientific study and exploration, and protect and preserve natural and cultural resources for all Americans.”