SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump on Wednesday vowed to end the "abuses" of the Antiquities Act and return power to the states, specifically mentioning the new Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah.
Trump, in signing an executive order calling for a review of national monument designations over the past 21 years, said the action is "to end these abuses and return control to the people, the people of Utah, the people of all of the states, the people of the United States."
The president signed the order Wednesday morning at the Department of the Interior surrounded by top Utah Republicans, including Gov. Gary Herbert, Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, and Rep. Chris Stewart.
"The previous administration used a 100-year-old law known as the Antiquities Act to unilaterally put millions of acres of land and water under strict federal control, eliminating the ability of the people who actually live in those states to decide how best to use that land," Trump said. "Today we are putting the states back in charge. It's a big thing."
Afterward, Herbert's office released a statement praising the executive order.
"I appreciate President Trump, Vice President Pence and Secretary Zinke’s comments and actions today to address the historical abuse of the Antiquities Act. The review ordered is critically important and holds the potential for a great restoration of integrity," Herbert said.
"Throughout its history, the state of Utah has had something of a Jekyll and Hyde relationship with the act. We have been the beneficiary of assertive, yet measured, presidential action using this tool; but we have also felt a deep and lasting burden when it has been misused."
Environmental groups immediately denounced the executive order, accusing the Trump administration of putting industry interests ahead of conservation and initiating action that puts landscapes at risk.
But at the signing ceremony, Trump said the power to designate monuments has been abused, pointing out the Obama administration created monuments enveloping 265 million acres of land and water — an area that is larger than the state of Texas.
"In December of last year alone, the federal government asserted this power over 1.35 million acres of land in Utah known as Bears Ears … over the profound objections of the citizens of Utah," said Trump, adding that he has "heard a lot about Bears Ears. I've heard it is beautiful."
"The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it is time we ended this abusive practice," the president said.
Lee predicted the Interior Department's review of monument designations will result in the rescission or alteration of the Bears Ears National Monument — action that Utah's congressional delegation, governor and other top elected officials have requested.
Trump said monument designations like Bears Ears represent an abuse of the executive power under the Antiquities Act that has continued to grow over the years.
"It's gotten worse and worse, and now we are going to free it up," he said, "which is what should have happened in the first place. It should have never have happened."
Trump also specifically recognized Hatch, referencing the talks the two had over Bears Ears at the White House.
"And believe me, (Hatch) is tough. He would call me and call me and say, 'You got to do this.' He didn't stop. He didn't give up. He is shocked that I am doing it, but it is the right thing to do," Trump said.
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said he watched the news conference live and is "absolutely thrilled."
"We had felt from the very beginning that the monument as it was proclaimed by President Obama was an overreach, it was too big, and it did not fit the heart and soul of the Antiquities Act," he said. "It was trying to protect objects that were not unique, not historic, not significant, and they did not use the smallest amount of land to protect objects that were listed in the proclamation."
Adams said the proclamation mentions night skies, solitude and a variety of plants and animals, including bats.
"The solitude, the dark skies, the animals, the plants, most of those animals and plants can be found in hundreds of other places."
The ceremony was also attended by the governors of Maine and Guam, as well as representatives from the Northern Mariana Islands — other geographical hot spots where Obama's monument designations have drawn protest from elected officials.
"We're now getting something done that many people thought would never, ever get done, and I am proud to be doing it in honor of you guys," Trump said.
In his closing remarks, Trump brought up the Bears Ears landscape in southeast Utah.
"Again I want to congratulate the secretary and Orrin (Hatch) and Mike (Lee) and all of the people who worked so hard in bringing it to this point and tremendously positive things are going to happen on that incredible land, the likes of which there's nothing more beautiful anywhere in the world, but now tremendously positive things will happen," he said.
Reaction was swift on Trump's actions.
"President Trump has launched an all-out assault on our national monuments and public lands. He made it clear today that he will eliminate protections for some of America’s most spectacular lands, waters and cultural sites, opening them up to drilling and mining," said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities.
Native American tribes reacted with outrage.
“It is extremely troubling that after years of effort to protect ancestral native lands, President Trump and Secretary Zinke plan to give a cursory look at Bears Ears National Monument,” stated Carleton Bowekaty, Zuni councilman and Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition co-chairman.
“For the first time in history, five sovereign nations came together to advocate for Bears Ears National Monument in order to protect this sacred cultural landscape that carries deep meaning for our people. This so-called ‘review’ creates a process to attack the designation of Bears Ears National Monument, and all public lands that are cherished by the American people.”
The Sutherland Institute's Matt Anderson praised the action.
"National monuments are no longer about protecting specific historical and cultural sites," Anderson said. "Instead, political gamesmanship, outdoor recreation, climate change and other motivations inconsistent with the original intent of the Antiquities Act rule the designation process.
"Repurposing a law to fit one individual’s agenda is wrong. No one wins when the executive branch ignores laws with impunity — not rural communities, and not the antiquities themselves. It doesn’t have to be this way," he said.
In an advance news briefing Tuesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the review called for under the executive order will focus primarily on the Bears Ears designation in the first 45 days. He plans to visit Utah before making any recommendations on the monument's fate.
"The Interior is the steward of America’s public lands. Part of being a good steward is being a good neighbor and being a good listener. In the Trump administration, we listen and then we act," Zinke said. "For years, the people of Utah and other rural communities have voiced concern and opposition to some monument designations. But too often in recent history, exiting presidents make designations despite those concerns. And the acreage is increasing."
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and multiple environmental groups were behind the push for Obama to make the designation, seeking federal protections for land Native American tribes in the region say is sacred because of their ancestral ties.
The land is said to be the most archaeologically rich area in the country, full of thousands of cultural resources.
Last July, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited southeast Utah and toured the Bears Ears region, meeting with elected officials, monument supporters and going to the Bears Ears meadows and talking with Native American tribes.
At the time, Jewell said it was clear the area deserved added protections and noted she was shocked at the vast number of artifacts in jeopardy of looting.
Utah's elected officials complained the Jewell visit was more about ceremony and show, and less about listening to local concerns over what may happen in the aftermath of a monument designation.
When Obama issued the proclamation on Bears Ears in December, the document directed the establishment of a Bears Ears Tribal Commission to provide guidance and direction on future management plans.
Native American tribes called the move historic.
"The designation of Bears Ears National Monument has been a celebratory moment in our history, where our voice was finally heard and our cultural and spiritual heritage was respected,” said Davis Filfred, Navajo Nation Council delegate.
“Unfortunately, the Utah delegation has continued to attack tribes and this unnecessary executive order serves to undermine tribal sovereignty. If Secretary Zinke truly believes that ‘sovereignty should mean something,’ as he had said, we hope he will finally respond to the tribes' multiple requests to meet with him,” Filfred said.
Kristen Brengel, executive director of the National Parks Action Fund, decried the executive order.
“This executive order is a direct attack on our national parks and the value they bring to the lives of all Americans. The Trump administration is reviewing the worthiness of our historic, cultural and natural heritage. This is a sad day for all Americans — our conservation lands and history is on the chopping block," Brengel said.