Bears Ears buttes

The Bears Ears buttes west of Blanding.[Photo by Tim Peterson / Courtesy of Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition]

On Monday, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and the other members of Utah’s congressional delegation sent a letter to President Joe Biden regarding the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.

“We call upon you, and your administration, to support and engage in finding a long-term legislative solution and stop the vacillation of national monument boundaries in Utah,” the letter reads. “We remain prepared to work in good faith and hope you do as well.”

In their letter, the Utah representatives asked the Biden administration for their assistance in finding a permanent legislative solution to these boundary disputes and statutory protections to prevent abuses of the Antiquities Act.

On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order calling for a 60-day review of Bears Ears’ and Grand Staircase-Escalante’s boundaries. The Utah congressional delegation also asks the president to extend that 60-day review to allow the Secretary of the Interior to travel to Utah and speak to residents about the impact of restoring the monuments’ former bounds. Deb Haaland, currently a Democratic representative for New Mexico, is Biden’s pick for Secretary of the Interior and likely to be confirmed to the position by the Senate later this month.

“We are confident that your administration can achieve a better, and possibly historic result, with substantive input and engagement from Utah’s stakeholders,” said the Utah representatives.

Hoping to end years-long debates

Utah’s all-Republican, all-male congressional delegation — Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney and Representatives Chris Stewart, John Curtis, Burgess Owens and Blake Moore — are primarily concerned with the effect that the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments will have on local residents and businesses.

The 1906 Antiquities Act gives the president the authority to create national monuments, which are protected from mining, drilling, logging, grazing and other environmentally hazardous activities. As part of the longstanding political opposition to federal land management, state politicians have voiced their concerns that such monuments are too large and that the large tracts of federally protected land take away job opportunities and harm local economies.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was created in 1996 by President Bill Clinton and has been a point of political controversy for years. Some Utah conservatives contend that Clinton’s designation “destroyed hundreds of rural jobs and the economic stability of local communities by locking up clean coal, endangering future grazing rights and cutting off multiple use and access,” as Stewart wrote in a 2017 op-ed.

20 years after the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument was created, President Barack Obama created the Bears Ears National Monument through the Antiquities Act in 2016. This monument was originally 1.35 million acres and had been requested by five Native American tribes — Hopi, Zuni, Diné (Navajo), Ute Mountain Ute and Ute, all members of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — who have cultural and historical ties to the area.

In 2017, President Trump issued an executive order that drastically reduced the acreage of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments, citing local opposition to the monument as his reasoning. All members of Utah’s Congressional delegation, Utah Governor Gary Herbert and the San Juan County Commission had opposed Bears Ears Monument designation in 2016. Utah Indigenous groups and conservation organizations opposed this executive order, and several groups — including the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Grand Staircase Escalante Partners and more — sued the Trump administration.

Now, Utah’s congressional representatives hope that they can resolve these long-standing issues legislatively, rather than with another set of executive orders or through litigation.

“A solution enacted by Congress could yield better results for all interested parties,” they wrote in the letter. “The executive actions creating the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments did not effectively protect sensitive cultural resources or provide certainty in management of the lands. Unilateral, executive action under the Antiquities Act will result in the same shortcomings.”

But time on Biden’s 60-day review on the monuments’ boundaries is running out. Utah representatives now urge the president to extend that timeline so that Rep. Haaland will have the time, resources and ability to “travel to Utah and meet with stakeholders who may otherwise be unheard.”

“This recommendation, which could change the fate of millions of acres of land in Utah and uproot entire economies, is hardly a matter that can be decided in such a short period of time,” the letter continued.

As of Tuesday, Biden has not yet responded to Utah’s congressional members.

Activists weigh in

Conservationist groups like the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners and Indigenous rights organizations such as Utah Diné Bikéyah have made it clear that they fully support the restoration of both monuments’ original boundaries.

“There is no reason for President Biden to delay on restoring Bears Ears National Monument. The people have already spoken,” Woody Lee, executive director of Utah Diné Bikéyah, said in a statement in January. He referenced a 2017 public review conducted by former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, which found that 98% of Americans who submitted comments supported protecting Bears Ears.

Scott Berry, Board Vice President for Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, supports eventual legislative action on the Utah monuments but stressed that immediate executive action is necessary to protect these landscapes.

“There are clear and present dangers out there right now that threaten both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase,” Berry said. “We don't have the leisure to sit back and wait on legislative action.”

These monuments have been hotbeds of controversy since the 1990s, Berry said, but developing legislation that would be acceptable to all stakeholders “has just proved impossible. Given that fact, it makes sense to take action now and immediately try and preserve the resources in Escalante and Bears Ears.”

Once the land is no longer in danger, he said, legislation would be the appropriate course of action.

Berry said that Utah’s lawmakers have often approached these national monuments from a perspective that asks, “what’s in it for us?”

“Instead, the delegation has to say, ‘what’s in it for the nation? What’s in it for our country to try and protect and preserve these places?’” Berry continued. “Instead of asking what's in it for Utah, let's really have a conversation, spend a couple of years on [legislation] if we need to, and protect these places for the national interest.”

When discussing Grand Staircase-Escalante, the “stakeholders” that the Utah congressional delegation reference in their letter include, according to Berry, only about 5,000 people in Kane in Garfield Counties who have economic interests in opposition to the monument. “If we start by asking what’s in it for them, that’s going to be a real long road,” he said. “They are a tiny fraction of the economies in those counties.”

Throughout much of the Intermountain West, the prevailing commodity for economic growth is the land itself. Americans and international visitors alike flock to the Colorado Plateau to enjoy the iconic landscapes, history and culture of the region.

“Figuring out how to both use those landscape resources in a productive economic sense while protecting them is the real challenge we face,” Berry said. “It shows very limited vision to think that this teeny fraction of the Utah population ought to call the shots about these national resources.”

Activists such as Berry welcome a national conversation about how to best protect these lands and resources, but they’re currently focused on the here and now: “Delay means more opportunity to damage these resources that we want to preserve.”