As President Joe Biden transitions into power, he is taking the first steps to restore the Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to their original size. Donald Trump made a proclamation in Dec. 2017 to reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85% or about 1.3 million acres and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 47%, or 900,000 acres.
In doing so, he diminished the size of the sacred tribal land of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray, Hopi Nation, and Zuni Tribes, as well as fragmenting important wildlife habitats.
In this action, Trump violated the Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to create national monuments in order to protect the land for the good of the American people.
Steve Bloch, legal director for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance since 2012, explained how Trump manipulated the act.
“At its core, I think we believe the Antiquities Act should be read as its written, which is that it gives presidents the authority to establish national monuments and to protect those places, and the Trump administration read between the lines to say that the power to create comes hand in hand with the power to destroy, so even though the act in no way says it’s okay for presidents to reduce or dismantle monuments, that is what the Trump administration read into it,” Bloch said.
While the physical effects of Trump’s proclamation have not been devastating other than land claims and occasional small hard rock mines, Bloch believes the danger lies in the message that the former president sent.
Bloch said it is important to restore the monument’s boundaries partly “because the whole goal of the Trump administration rewrite was to, in large part, kind of continue down the road of pretending that climate change isn’t real and agencies don’t have to think about what the impacts of their decisions are for climate change.”
Joro Walker, General Counsel at Western Resource Advocates, also said there were dangers in Trump’s message.
“One of the concerns is that this precedent… set by the Trump proclamation is that any president can come in and undo monument designations made by any president before,” Walker said.
In order to prevent this from happening, WRA, SUWA, and other advocacy groups have taken part in several lawsuits over the last few years in an attempt to reverse Trump’s proclamation on grounds that the land area was illegally reduced under the Antiquities Act. While they have not met much success in court, Biden’s stance on the issue allows advocates to feel a glimpse of hope.
During his first full day in office, Biden issued an executive order for the Department of Interior to review the boundaries that Trump set for the park in 2017.
The order directs the Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland to provide a review and overarching goal moving within 60 days of the order.
Walker said the final decisions made should consider the indigenous people who live on the lands affected.
“Native American tribes should have an increased role in the way that Bears Ears is managed, so I think the proper response to restoring Bears Ears or expanding it, would be to have significant involvement by the Native American tribes in management— they’re the ones who know the land and how to protect it,” Walker said.