President Joe Biden will restore two significant national monuments in Utah that have been at the focus of a long-running public lands controversy and a separate marine conservation area in New England that has recently been exploited for commercial fishing, according to persons briefed on the plan.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, issued a statement on Thursday, Oct. 7, expressing regret with Biden’s decision to restore the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments, which were drastically reduced under Trump.
The monuments span vast swaths of southern Utah, where petroglyphs and cliff dwellings can be found among the red rocks, and distinctive twin buttes rise from a grassy valley. According to AP news, the Trump administration has trimmed Bears Ears by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by nearly half, both of which are located on territory deemed sacred to Native American tribes.
Both monuments were established by Democratic presidents and encompassed over 3 million acres of land (1.2 million hectares). Bears Ears was reduced to slightly over 200,000 acres (80,900 hectares) due to Trump’s actions, leaving Grand Staircase-Escalante at over 1 million acres (405,000 hectares).
The White House and the Interior Department declined to comment on Thursday, but two Democratic officials and others briefed on the proposal claimed Biden’s order will extend Bears Ears after the Trump Administration had downsized the monument in 2017.
In the Atlantic Ocean, southeast of Cape Cod, the plan also restores protections in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument.
Environmentalists pressed Biden and Haaland to reinstate fishing safeguards after Trump approved a rule modification allowing commercial fishing at the marine monument, which was lauded by fishing interests but condemned by environmentalists.
According to Jen Felt, ocean campaign director for the Conservation Law Foundation, protecting the marine monument will “safeguard this invaluable area for the fragile species that call it home” and highlight the administration’s dedication to research.
In a statement, Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, applauded the Biden administration for “conserving our public lands and respecting the voices of Indigenous Peoples” by reinstating the monuments.
But Utah’s governor called Biden’s decision a “tragic missed opportunity.” The president’s action “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,” Cox said in a statement released with other state leaders.
Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, slammed Biden in a tweet, saying the president “squandered the opportunity to build consensus” and find a long-term solution for the monuments.
“Yet again, Utah’s national monuments are being used as a political football between administrations,” Romney said Thursday. “The decision to re-expand the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is a devastating blow to our state, local and tribal leaders and our delegation … today’s ‘winner take all’ mentality moved us further away from that goal.”
Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation organization, praised Biden’s decision and expressed hope that it would be the first step toward his goal of conserving at least 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.
“Thank you, President Biden,” Rokala said in a statement. “You have listened to Indigenous tribes and the American people and ensured these landscapes will be protected for generations to come.”
In 2016, former President Barack Obama declared Bears Ears a national monument, 20 years after former President Bill Clinton took steps to conserve Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. At the request of tribes, Bears Ears was the first location to get the designation.
According to Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, the Bears Ears buttes, which overlook a grassy valley, are regarded as a place of devotion for many tribes. The Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe are among the members of the association.
The Trump administration’s reductions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante have opened the door to prospective coal extraction and oil and gas production on formerly off-limits territories. However, due to market factors, activity was limited.
Conservative state officials praised the reductions, calling the scale of both monuments “overreach” by the U.S. government.
Environmental, tribal, paleontological, and outdoor recreation groups, on the other hand, sued to restore the monuments’ original limits, claiming that presidents lack the legal authority to alter monuments established by their predecessors. Meanwhile, Republicans said that Democratic presidents had abused President Theodore Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act by creating monuments that aren’t necessary to conserve archaeological and cultural resources.
“Families will hike and hunt on land they have known for generations, and they will preserve it for generations to come,” Trump said in December 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. “The Antiquities Act does not give the Federal Government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it’s time we ended this abusive practice. Public lands will once again be for public use.”
Under The Antiquities Act, which passed in 1906 and served as the basis of the Clinton and Obama monument expansions, “any land reserved … must be limited to the smallest area compatible with the care and management of the objects to be protected,” Chief Justice John Roberts of the United States Supreme Court wrote in March about a case concerning a 3.1 million-acre marine monument off the coast of Massachusetts, according to the Daily Caller.
According to the Biden administration, the decision to evaluate the monuments was part of a larger plan to combat climate change and undo the Trump administration’s “harmful” policies.
The construction of the ocean monument and the process utilized to create it were contested by fishing groups. According to Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Obama utilized the Antiquities Act to establish it, undercutting years of work by fishing groups.
“These fishing areas have a way to be managed that is a little bit cumbersome, a little bit time-consuming, but it brings all the stakeholders together,” McCarron said.