Fight on over Bears Ears monument in Utah

Fight on over Bears Ears monument in Utah

(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Angry Utah leaders are vowing to do everything within their power to unravel President Barack Obama's Wednesday designation of a new national monument in Utah.

They say they will call on the Trump administration to reverse the proclamation, file a lawsuit or if nothing else, shrink the size of the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears Monument with congressional legislation and wipe away any last bit of funding.

Despite the fist shaking from critics, Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the Obama administration does not fear the backlash in Utah and added there's no belief that an attempt to rescind the proclamation will prove successful.

"No presidents have actually undone a monument by a (previous) president," she said, adding that there is no provision in the Antiquities that expressly would allow that action.

Goldfuss actually made the official announcement of the monument designation in an embargoed teleconference with reporters 60 minutes before it went public.

The designation was sought by the leaders of five Native American tribes and a coalition of environmental and conservation groups, much to the dismay of San Juan County leaders and Utah's top elected officials.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said just because rescinding a monument hasn't been done, doesn't mean it can't be done. There's no precedent, he stressed.

"As Utahns, we will use every tool at our disposal to do the right thing," he said. "As Utahns, we will fight to right this wrong."

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, called the designation an "arrogant act by lame a duck president" that will not stand.

"I will work tirelessly with Congress and the incoming Trump administration to honor the will of the people and undo this designation."

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes issued a statement to detail that his office, members of the congressional delegation and state and local leaders have been working together to prepare a lawsuit in the event of a designation.

"Rather than shut out local residents, the (Obama) administration should look for ways to strengthen schools, pave roads and build the local economy. Instead, it rides roughshod over repeatedly expressed local concerns and exceeds the law's scope as intended by Congress when it passed the Antiquities Act over a century ago," Reyes said.

But Heidi McIntosh, an attorney with Earthjustice, said any legal challenge that the state of Utah and others might bring would have a rough go.

"Challenging a national monument is extraordinarily difficult" she said. "The Utah Association of Counties and others who challenged the designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument found that out."

McIntosh pointed to a federal court decision in the wake of the 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase that concluded the Antiquities Act — which grants presidential authority to protect antiquities — was written broadly to give vast discretion to the U.S. president.

"There is so much discretion it is virtually unreviewable by the courts," McIntosh said.

But Reyes said the lawsuit Utah wants to file over Bears Ears presents different legal arguments.


"This case is different from other past challenges by states and counties and we are confident in our chances of success," he said.

San Juan County commissioners have scheduled a press conference for 10 a.m. Thursday on the steps of the Monticello Courthouse and Administration Building, which will detail their next steps in the monument fight.

The GOP members of the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands compared Obama's monument designation in Utah to the "unilateral tyranny" excercised by the king of England against American colonies.

They said such an exercise of power will not survive constitutional review.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, at a press conference Wednesday, said the presidential action was a disappointment on many levels and that "isn't the democratic way; it's certainly not the American way."

Monument critics have argued that if the Bureau of Land Management would enforce existing laws designed to protect cultural resources, the area would have been adequately protected.

McIntosh argued the Bears Ears region is exactly the appropriate place for Antiquities Act protections.

The executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Scott Groene, said it would be wise if Utah's political leaders would tamp down their rhetoric and put away the boxing gloves.

“We urge the Utah congressional delegation to show leadership in coming down on the right side of history, by respecting the tribes and supporting the monument. Twenty years of history has shown that the fury and fight against the Grand Staircase National Monument accomplished nothing other than perpetuating animosity among Utahns. We should not repeat that mistake."


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