Native American tribe coalition to sue Trump for shrinking Bears Ears

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SALT LAKE CITY — Not long after President Donald Trump left Utah on Monday, five Native American tribes announced plans to file a lawsuit challenging his pair of proclamations to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

A coalition of five tribes — Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian — claim Trump has no legal authority to shrink the Bears Ears designation.

"What transpired today is just hard for me to comprehend," Jonathan Nez, vice president of Navajo Nation, said during a news conference Monday, shaking his head. "It's just another slap in the face for a lot of us.

"But we're not going to allow it to happen," Nez added. "We're ready to fight. We're resilient people. We're strong. … And we'll see President Trump in court."

Ethel Branch, attorney general for the Navajo Nation, called Trump's proclamation "a tremendous affront to tribal sovereignty," and said he "overstepped his authority" to do it.

Branch said the suit is expected to be filed in either Utah District Court or Washington, D.C., District Court at some point Monday when her team finalizes its language.

The suit will argue that there is nothing in the Antiquities Act of 1906 that allows a president to modify a previous president's designation, she said.

Shaun Chopoose, a member of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee, said Utah's congressional delegation and the president have "taken it upon themselves to declare war on us."

"If it's a fight they want, it's a fight they're going to get," Chopoose said. "We will use every tool available, and we will prevail."

Others opponents, including environmental groups, lashed out Monday after Trump signed the proclamations, accusing the president of sacrificing precious lands for commercial and political interests, and many threatened legal action against the decision.

But supporters of the president's action were just as quick to praise the decision, saying it puts the land back in the state's control.

Trump said during his brief visit to Utah on Monday that past administrations had "abused" the Antiquities Act when they used it to lay national monument designations on the two areas.

The president's proclamation shrinks Bears Ears from nearly 1.35 million acres into an 86,447-acre Indian Creek unit and a 142,337-acre Shash Jaa unit.

Grand Staircase-Escalante will be cut back from nearly 1.9 million acres to three units, the 211,983-acre Grand Staircase, the 551,117-acre Kaiparowits, and the 243,241-acre Escalante Canyons.

The decision came at the request of state lawmakers and Utah's congressional delegation, and followed an on-the-ground review by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Conservationists object

Trump's announcement was cheered loudly by supporters gathered in the Utah Capitol, while protests against the decision raged outside.

Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, said Trump's order puts irreplaceable natural treasures at risk.

"Trump's unprecedented, illegal action is a brutal blow to our public lands, an affront to Native Americans and a disgrace to the presidency," Spivak said. "He wants to hand over these lands to private industry to mine, frack, bulldoze and clear-cut until there's nothing left for our children and grandchildren."

Trump's unprecedented, illegal action is a brutal blow to our public lands, an affront to Native Americans and a disgrace to the presidency.

–Randi Spivak, Center for Biological Diversity

The New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council defended former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton using the Antiquities Act to protect the area.

"Presidents use the Antiquities Act to create national monuments and protect our special lands and waters for future generations. This president thinks he can use it to destroy them, grabbing the iconic landscapes and marine areas all Americans own, and handing them over to polluters and private interests," said Rhea Suh, the organization's president.

Suh called Trump's action "unprecedented" and "illegal," threatening a lawsuit.

"What's next, President Trump — the Grand Canyon? See you in court," she said.

A statement from the Wilderness Society, a nonprofit land conservation group, voiced fears that loss of monument protections opens the area up for drilling and mining. Jamie Williams, the organization's president, also derided the president for ignoring the wishes of those protesting the change.

"Any action by the administration to erase or permanently damage these national monuments is not only illegal but also an insult to the owners of this land — the American people — and will be challenged by the Wilderness Society in court," Williams said.

Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities, called Trump "the first president in American history to try to strip protections from millions of acres set aside for our children and grandchildren."

"Today, President Trump is sacrificing tribal heritage, paleontological discoveries and the small-business owners who drive America's outdoor economy, all in the name of coal, oil and uranium. We've never seen an attack on America's parks and public lands at this scale," Rokala said.

The Western Values Project, which is based in Zinke's hometown of Whitefish, Montana, called the president's decision "a dangerous turn in our nation's approach" to protecting Western lands, and bashed Zinke's recommendation to reduce the monuments' size.


"For his part, Secretary Zinke should be ashamed of his role in this craven decision to allow special interests to exploit the kinds of places President Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act to protect," said Chris Saeger, the group's executive director. "Fortunately, legal experts overwhelmingly agree that undoing these protections is unlawful and will not stand."

The Conservation Lands Foundation, of Durango, Colorado, also promised legal action over the monument reduction.

"This is nothing more than political score-settling from an administration that doesn't seem to comprehend the extraordinary value these lands hold for Native American communities and all Americans. The elimination of these national treasures is beyond belief," said Brian Sybert, executive director.

Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called the president's decision "an appalling overreach of his authority."

"Democrats are committed to standing up against the Trump administration's efforts to auction off our public lands to special interests and corporate polluters. And we'll fight tooth and nail to protect our most sacred natural parks, lands and monuments for future generations," Perez said.

Support for Trump

Advocates for shrinking the monument lands, including Utah's all-Republican congressional delegation, heralded Trump's decision as the right fit for Utah.

Newly elected Rep. John Curtis called on Congress to follow up on Trump's revision.

"Now that the president has created two new monuments in my congressional district, the time has come for Congress to ensure that these sites are managed the right way. In the coming days, I look forward to introducing legislation to ensure we are just doing that," Curtis said.

Rep. Chris Stewart said the Grand Staircase monument has been a burden on his constituents in the area.

"President Trump had the courage that no other president had. He listened to local voices that had been left out of the decision-making process for too long," Stewart said.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, talks with Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, prior to President Donald Trump's arrival at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL)
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, talks with Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, prior to President Donald Trump's arrival at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL)


Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, called Trump's proclamations "a first step" toward protecting precious areas while respecting the people who live there.

"The next steps will be to move beyond symbolic gestures of protection and create substantive protections and enforcement and codify in law a meaningful management role for local governments, tribes and other stakeholders," Bishop said.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes called Trump's announcement "a historic step to correct the hubris of past administrations" and a more appropriate use of the Antiquities Act.

"President Trump and Secretary Zinke have found a balance that considers the needs of our local communities and still protects the singular, stunning and sacred lands of our state for future generations," Reyes said in a prepared statement.

He further urged Congress to review the act, noting that "such remedial measures would not be necessary if Congress would clarify the limits of initial monument designations."


Evelyn Everton, director over Americans for Prosperity in the state, called Trump's decision a victory for Utahns, who will now be able to properly care for the areas.

"With over $18 billion of maintenance work needed on federal lands managed by federal agencies, the federal government has proven to be a poor caretaker of federal lands," Everton said.

The president's decision, she said, "will increase economic competitiveness, especially in rural parts of the state."

Camille Johnson, executive director of the Kane County Office of Tourism, said the massive and underdeveloped Grand Staircase monument often left visitors "confused and disappointed," in contrast to the well-established national parks in the area.

"The new, resized, more distinct monuments will improve visitor expectations and enhance our ability to market the unique features of each," Johnson said.

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