Cuts to Utah Monuments by Trump Administration Signal New Environmental Protection Approach
Early Tuesday, the White House announced a massive reduction of two national monuments in Utah, removing over two million acres of land from federal protection. The downsizing of the sites, Bear’s Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante, has set off a major legal battle that is set to define the future of environmental protection in the United States.
Bear’s Ear National Monument is set to be trimmed by 85 percent, while Grand Staircase-Escalante is to be reduced by 50 percent, in an attempt to reduce what President Trump has called, “federal overreach” and “an egregious use of government power.”
The two national monuments were originally created by his democratic predecessors. President Clinton marked Grand Staircase-Escalante a monument in 1996 and President Obama formed the Bear’s Ears monument in 2016.
The Utah land, in which these national monuments are contained, has long been a source of contention. Large parts of these monuments have important archeological significance, as they hold the remains of many Native American grave sites, ceremonial grounds, and cliff settlements. Despite the extensive history of the area, numerous industrial groups in Utah, including oil companies, ranchers, and miners, have lobbied for the sites to be opened for development and expansion.
Local resident Bruce Adams, expressed the sentiments of many ranchers who live near these monuments. He called the claims of environmental protection groups, “not true statements” and “just basically lies,” in an interview with BBC.
The decision made by the Trump Administration can be seen as a major victory to people like Mr. Adams, as well as to Republican lawmakers in Utah.
Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) joined the president in his announcement of the monument reduction, calling the actions of the President “a great favor” to the people of Utah.
Democrats, along with many conservationists and indigenous rights activists, were not as pleased with Trump’s plan. They viewed his action as a tragic attack on historical and environmental protection, and a threat against other national monuments.
Jonathan Nez, Vice President of the Navajo Nation, said “it is a sad day in Indian Country, and a sad day for Americans,” on MSNBC.
Opponents to the president’s actions did not spend long mourning. A coalition of Native American tribes filed a lawsuit the same day, accusing Trump of violating the U.S. Constitution and the Antiquities Act of 1906. The petitioners were composed of leaders from the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute, and Mountain Ute tribes, who have lived in the areas protected by the national monuments for thousands of years.
The result of this lawsuit has widespread implications, not only for the fate of Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, but for the other 127 protected sites that are designated as national monuments. If the Trump administration is victorious in reducing the size of the monuments, the door would be opened to more cuts of culturally significant areas.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has been open about his support for reducing the size of these national monuments. In a report commissioned by President Trump, Zinke recommended cutting the size of six other national monuments to prevent further federal overreach.
A favorable ruling for the opposing side, the Native American tribes, which support the preservation of the Utah monuments, would be a major setback to the administration, as Trump would be forced to restore the monuments to their original size and be prevented from dissolving any other national monuments.
The legal battle will be long and hard for both sides, but on Tuesday Secretary Zinke expressed hope that the administration’s decision would be upheld. The secretary declared “I feel confident that we will prevail because it’s the right thing to do.”