Biden expected to restore original boundaries of Bears Ears, Grand Staircase monuments

Anasazi ruins that are over 700 years old are pictured
in Mule Canyon in the Shash Jaa Unit of Bears Ears National
Monument in San Juan County on April 9.

Anasazi ruins that are over 700 years old are pictured in Mule Canyon in the Shash Jaa Unit of Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County on April 9. ( Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — The ball is now in a different political court over Utah monument boundaries, with President Joe Biden expected on Friday to reverse a decision by the Trump administration to downsize Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Biden will sign an executive order upending then-President Donald Trump's December 2017 decision to shrink the boundaries, which happened much to the applause of conservative Utah leaders and rural commissioners and to the dismay of environmental activists and Native American tribes.

"President Biden's decision to expand the monuments is disappointing, though not surprising," said a statement released by Gov. Spencer J. Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Attorney General Sean Reyes, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.

"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. Our goal has been to make lasting progress on managing our public lands for the benefit of all those who use them, particularly those who live on and near those lands."

Their statement went on to emphasize they expected more collaboration from the national government.

"We expected and hoped for closer collaboration between our state and national leaders, especially on matters that directly impact Utah and our citizens. The president's decision to enlarge the monuments again is a tragic missed opportunity — it fails to provide certainty as well as the funding for law enforcement, research, and other protections which the monuments need and which only Congressional action can offer."

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee said he talked to Biden on Thursday.

"I told him the monument announcement runs against Utahns' wishes. I explained that his decision is hurtful and contrary to the Antiquities Act's intention. I offered to work with him on a permenant (sic) legislative fix that would protect Utahns' interest," he posted on Twitter.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said late Thursday she was excited to be at the White House Biden for the announcement regarding the boundary restorations and to serve as an example for students she teaches.

"It is so exciting standing behind my president, supporting this," she said.

Biden's expected announcement comes after an April visit by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to Utah to review the landscapes of the monuments and a subsequent submission of the Interior Department's recommendations to Biden.

Conservative Utah politicians who had urged boundary reductions when Trump was in office said that, from the get-go, Haaland's visit was a token gesture to feign an open-minded look at locals' concerns.

That assertion was underscored with the anticipated decision on Friday, with the Utah delegation releasing a harsh statement.

"President Biden is delivering a devastating blow to the ongoing efforts by our delegation, along with state, local, and tribal leaders, to find a permanent, legislative solution to resolve the longstanding dispute over the boundaries and management of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments," it read.

"Rather than take the opportunity to build unity in a divided region and bring resources and lasting protections to sacred antiquities by seeking a mutually beneficial and permanent legislative solution, President Biden fanned the flames of controversy and ignored input from the communities closest to these monuments. We will continue to support efforts to ensure that our monuments' boundaries and management reflect the unique stakeholder interest and uses in the area, but today's "winner take all" mentality moved us further away from that goal."

In December 2017, Trump traveled to Utah to announce he was shrinking both monuments' boundaries after he had sent his own interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, to visit the landscapes to make a determination.

Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock said it was an aha moment for him when it came to politics.

"It was the first time in history that all of us could ever remember the state of Utah making a request to an administration and having it honored like that," he said.

Utah House Democrats commended Biden for using his authority to restore the monuments to their original boundaries.

"The vast majority of Utahns recognize the urgent need for protecting these majestic places. And while some have urged a legislative solution over using the Antiquities Act, too many opportunities have been passed up to do the right thing," they said in a statement. "To continue to leave these cherished places vulnerable to further defacement and looters is unacceptable. The time for action has come."

Environmental groups also applauded the planned reduction.

"Thank you, President Biden. You have listened to Indigenous tribes and the American people and ensured these landscapes will be protected for generations to come," said the Center for Western Priorities' executive director Jennifer Rokala. "The cultural and paleontological resources within the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase landscapes are too important to leave at risk."

Utah has vowed to sue.

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Amy Joi O’Donoghue is a reporter for the Utah InDepth team at the Deseret News with decades of expertise in land and environmental issues.


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