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Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante restoration continues conversation surrounding land use

President Biden signs his presidential proclamation to restore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante surrounded by representatives of Indigenous nations Oct. 7. The state of Utah has since threatened lawsuits against the federal government. Screenshot courtesy of Ella Viesturs via livestream courtesy of The White House.

National Monuments Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante were restored by President Joe Biden Oct. 7, springing celebrations among Indigenous nations, conservationists and wilderness preservation movements. The restorations also invoked litigations by the state of Utah.

Kellie Gerbers, program director and associate professor of outdoor education and leadership at Westminster College, said she is aware of Utah’s frustrations in terms of how these monuments should be used and managed. 

“It’s this constant balance between preservation versus development, and this idea of who is better equipped to manage the land and determine how that land is best used,” Gerbers said.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he is ready to sue the Biden administration for enlarging the two monuments, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Steve Bloch, legal director at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said SUWA will be involved if and when the state of Utah sues the federal government. 

Steve Bloch, legal director at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said there is still work to be done with regards to protecting Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. President Biden restored the national monuments to their original sizes Oct. 7 under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Graphic courtesy of Ella Viesturs.

“I’m very hopeful [for the future of these monuments],” Bloch said. “We’re certainly grateful that the monuments have been restored, it’s kind of a huge weight off our shoulders. I don’t think the work is done because we’ve heard the state of Utah say they intend to litigate the Biden orders, so we’re preparing to involve ourselves in those cases.”

Bears Ears comprises land that has supported, is sacred to and was stolen from the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni, according to President Biden’s proclamation

Bears Ears National Monument, designated by President Barack Obama in 2016, is one of the most substantial archeological sites in the world, and is the first national monument established by request of Indigenous tribes, according to the Bears Ears Education Center.

Grand Staircase-Escalante comprises land that has supported, is sacred to and was stolen from the Hopi Tribe, the Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, the Navajo Nation, the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe of Arizona, the Pueblo of Acoma, the Pueblo of San Felipe, the Pueblo of Tesuque and the Pueblo of Zuni, according to President Biden’s proclamation.

Grand Staircase-Escalante, designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996, covers about 1.87 million acres, includes five life zones from low-lying desert to coniferous forest, and attracts swaths of scientists such as geologists, biologists and paleontologists, according to the Utah Bureau of Land Management

President Donald Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears by 85% (1.1 million acres,) and Grand Staircase-Escalante by about 50% (900,000 acres) in 2017, according to the World Monuments Fund and Steve Bloch, legal director at SUWA.

Presidential proclamations on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante and press releases, provided by Kellie Gerbers, program director of outdoor education and leadership and OEL associate professor at Westminster College, are accessible to the public and recount new land designations. Presidential proclamations are presidential directives on an issue of public policy, according to The White House. Photo courtesy of Ella Viesturs.

Bloch began his journey with the wilderness preservation organization in 1999 as an attorney. He became the legal director in 2012. 

“What Trump did was something no modern era president has tried, which was to undo national monument designations,” Bloch said. “When he came to Utah on Dec. 4, 2017, announced and signed the orders, undoing the monuments, we sued the very same day. He hadn’t even flown out of Salt Lake City [by the time] Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Native American tribes, other non-governmental organizations and businesses had filed suit in federal court in Washington D.C.”

Organizations like SUWA work with Indigenous coalitions to uphold and advocate for the necessary standards of protecting cultural monuments such as Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, according to Bloch.

“The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance was founded in 1983 and has had kind of a single mission since then,” Bloch said. “It’s the protection of wilderness and wilderness-caliber landscapes, principally on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which is an agency inside of the [U.S. Department of the Interior].”

Even though the monuments are restored, the state of Utah plans to litigate President Biden’s recent proclamation under the Antiquities Act.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 states the president of the United States has full authority to “declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated on land owned or controlled by the Federal Government to be national monuments,” according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“[In] the 1906 Antiquities Act, that gives the president unilateral power to declare national monuments, the tricky language [is] ‘limited to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of these structures,’” said Kellie Gerbers, program director and associate professor of OEL at Westminster. “Where states, particularly in Utah, are really interested in litigation is about that piece.” 

Gerbers teaches an OEL course on public lands policy at Westminster. She said the state of Utah is interested in litigation and restricting the size of the monuments for the sake of creating economic opportunity in communities near the monuments.

“[Studies] argue that it’s actually a pretty minimal or negligible economic benefit, […] there’s not enough evidence to suggest that extraction or development is the better economic option,” Gerbers said. “It also brings up this philosophical idea of [whether or not] everything needs to be put into a cost-benefit model that’s always talking about extractive resources or resource development.”

Utah Solicitor General Melissa Holyoak said Biden’s proclamation is an abuse of power of the Antiquities Act, according to Utah Fox 13. She said expanding back to Obama’s boundaries is a “gross abuse of [authority].”

Holyoak said any lawsuit Utah files could likely end up in the U.S. Supreme court, according to Utah Fox 13.

SUWA is preparing to defend the restoration as the situation unfolds. 

Bloch said he is optimistic about the future of the two newly restored monuments 

“I’m looking forward to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante being managed as crown jewels of the public land system, and it’s really going to take a lot of work because we know visitors are coming — especially on the Bears Ears side,” Bloch said. “[We’re really] trying to make sure that the sacred sites in that monument, the fossils, the remarkable ecosystem there, [are] kept intact for future generations.”


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