Shortly before he left office, Obama established the 1.35 million-acre monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906, fulfilling the decades-old dreams of American Indians and environmental advocates like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) to gain government protection for the natural beauty of this red-rock land, the plants and creatures living on it, tens of thousands of Native artifacts and petroglyphs dating back millennia, and sites sacred to the five tribes who worked in coalition with environmental organizations and politicians to make Bears Ears a reality.
Intent on smashing anything Obama did, a year later Trump, in December 2017, shrank Bears Ears by 85% and cut the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument established by Clinton by almost half. Three lawsuits against the move were immediately filed by tribal, conservation, and paleontology groups to challenge the constitutionality of Trump’s action. With that litigation still working its way through the courts, in February 2020 the Trump regime implemented management plans that opened these lands previously off-limits to energy development, including mining and drilling.
Biden could strictly follow Haaland’s recommendation to reestablish the original boundaries of both monuments or, in the case of Bears Ears, he could expand the boundaries to the 1.9 million acres that the Intertribal Coalition had asked to be included when the monument was designated by Obama.
But some eco-advocates are concerned about simply reversing Trump’s cuts. One of those is University of Colorado Law School professor Mark Squillace. Simply restoring the boundaries to where they were before Trump got his mitts on them certainly has appeal, he said last November. But he warned that doing so would suggest that Trump’s decision to shrink the site had been valid. “I think it would be a mistake to simply issue new proclamations,” said Squillace, who filed an amicus brief in one of the lawsuits challenging Trump as not having the authority under the Antiquities Act to shrink existing monuments, something he says only Congress can do:
“We do need to resolve this question at some point to whether Trump had the authority to change the boundaries the way he did,” Squillace said, noting that without an opinion, monuments could be subject to seeing their boundaries expand and contract whenever party control of the White House switches.[…]
Carol Davenport reports today:
“We welcome this news after years of litigation aimed at restoring the much needed protections for these lands and waters,” said Dan Hartinger, director of government relations for The Wilderness Society. “Secretary Haaland received input from near and far about the importance of restoring protections and there is no doubt she heard overwhelming support that led to her recommendations. We now must see the president act based on the facts and not be side tracked by those who have failed to identify any other viable path forward.” […]
Mr. [Spencer J.] Cox, the Republican governor of Utah, said in a statement that he was disappointed. “I think there’s a better way, and I look forward to talking with the president about how to find a lasting solution that’s better for the land and everyone involved,” he said.
One of those supposedly better ways is to turn everything over to Congress. Utah’s Sen. Mitt Romney likes that idea, and it’s also one most of the rest of Utah’s mostly conservative congressional delegation approves of as well.
Anyone thinking that such a move might produce a reasonable compromise should remember that one of the reasons President Theodore Roosevelt got the Antiquities Act passed 115 years ago was because Congress wouldn’t act on its own to protect the nation’s environmentally and culturally precious treasures. In Utah, the first proposal in the 1930s was for 4 million protected acres in Bears Ears. That was squelched. In the modern era, talks were meant to bridge the gap between those who wanted extensive Bears Ears lands protected and those who wanted far less. But these talks had been going on sporadically for more than a decade without agreement when Obama took action.
A key element of the effort to bring Bears Ears into being was tribal involvement. Jessica Douglas and Graham Lee Brewer at High Country News write:
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group of tribal governments, worked with the Obama administration to create the original boundaries of Bears Ears. The partnership demonstrated an unprecedented reliance on tribal consultation for the federal government. For many Indigenous leaders, it became a blueprint for how to involve tribes in the stewardship of lands that were originally stolen from them but are also important to the country as a whole. […]
For Indigenous peoples, both inside and outside of Utah, the conflicts were only the most recent in a long history of colonial theft and cultural genocide. Five tribes were involved in the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which were consulted in the monument’s establishment, and three of them — the Hopi Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe — had been forcibly removed to reservations outside Bears Ears’ original boundaries. And for many of the Indigenous people who call Utah home, racism — both overt and systemic — remains a daily trauma, whether it appears in a racial slur hurled at a Little League game or when the public is allowed to trample the ruins of ancient dwellings.
Nobody is hinting about when Biden may announce his decision in the matter. In addition to these monuments, he should consider that blueprint for indigenous stewardship something that should be applied elsewhere on America’s public lands, including any new monuments he may choose to add to the roster.
Joaqlin Estus at Indian Country Today noted that the Inter-tribal Coalition had begun a national ad campaign on May 23 urging Biden to take immediate action to not only restore but expand the boundaries:
Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Chairman and Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition member Manuel Heart stated, “These are aboriginal ancestral lands, even before the statehood of Utah, we’ve taken care of these lands. Yet, for so many years the government’s explicit policy with the Indian Removal Act, policies that penalized speaking in our Native tongues, and the broader assimilation process all contributed to an effort to disconnect us from the land and our lifeways.
“This is the broader context where we find ourselves today,” Heart said. “But now we have a new President. And President Biden has the opportunity to begin a new chapter where we are included in the management of public lands. Acknowledging our connection to these landscapes in speeches is important but involving us in the management would be restorative justice in practice.”
A new chapter is most definitely needed.