Bears Ears National Monument

A view of Cedar Mesa within Bears Ears National Monument. [Bureau of Land Management]

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes announced on Dec. 4 that law firm Consovoy McCarthy PLLC would assist the state in potentially challenging the restoration of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments' original boundaries.

The announcement came days after a demonstration from pro-monument activists at the state’s capitol building, urging state officials not to pursue litigation or a reduction of the monuments, which have been controversial in Utah for years.

Reyes stated that the office has retained a law firm to “assist with research and analysis about potential litigation.”

“We have done so,” he wrote, “because recent opinions from members of the U.S. Supreme Court strongly indicate that President Biden’s use of the Antiquities Act is the wrong way to protect such vast areas of southern Utah.”

In 2017, the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association and other commercial fishing associations filed a lawsuit in response to the designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National monument off the coast of New England. A district court upheld the monument’s legality; plaintiffs requested that the Supreme Court review the case.

The Supreme Court declined the case, but Chief Justice John Roberts issued a statement questioning the broad presidential use of the Antiquities Act, which is the 1906 law that gives the chief executive the authority to declare monuments.

“We continue to urge Congress to work with the State, with local governments, and with Tribal nations on a long-term legislative solution for the conservation of these lands that would end the existing uncertainty and avoid a potentially acrimonious legal challenge,” Reyes’s statement reads.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was designated by former President Bill Clinton in 1996 at 1.7 million acres, and divided local opinion at the time it was designated. Bears Ears National Monument was designated in 2016 by President Barack Obama, placing 1.3 million acres within San Juan County under federal protection. In 2017, President Donald Trump reduced Bears Ears by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by almost half.

In 2017, tribes and conservation groups filed a lawsuit challenging the reductions. This October, President Joe Biden restored the monuments to their original acreages. Bears Ears also gained another 11,000 acres that had been added by Trump.

Utah elected officials opposed Biden’s restoration of the boundaries, calling instead for a long-term, legislative solution.

“President Biden’s decision to expand the monuments is disappointing, though not surprising. For the past 10 months, we have consistently offered to work with the Biden Administration on a permanent, legislative solution, one that would end the perpetual enlarging and shrinking of these monuments and bring certainty to their management,” read an Oct. 7 press release from Utah Governor Spencer Cox along with other Utah elected officials.

The statement goes on to say the president’s executive action fails to provide the funding the monuments will need to adequate management.

“As Utahns know better than anyone, these magnificent lands deserve appropriate long-term protections,” a Dec. 4 press release from Reyes reads, “Unfortunately, President Biden has undermined that goal. His actions create more uncertainty and prolong the political tug-of-war over Utah’s public lands.”