SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump's breaking up of two national monuments in Utah touched off a spate of expected lawsuits, including one from a coalition of Native American tribes.
Justin Pidot, an attorney for the Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni tribes, said the creation of Bears Ears National Monument was a promise to protect and respect sacred lands.
"Yesterday, President Trump broke that promise," Pidot said Tuesday. "With his very first action on national monuments, he chose to go after the monument most important to Native Americans."
The Navajo Nation, Native American Rights Fund (representing the Hopi, Zuni and Ute Mountain Ute tribes), and Ute Indian Tribe sued Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in federal court in Washington, D.C. They contend the president is trying to illegally revoke and replace Bears Ears National Monument.
They are among several groups to challenge the president's order carving out two drastically smaller monuments from Bears Ears and splitting Grand Staircase-Escalante into three downsized monuments. The federal land stripped from the monuments remains under control of the Bureau of Land Management.
All the lawsuits make the same basic argument that presidents lack the authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to change or rescind national monument boundaries. They want the courts to overturn his order.
"It gives the president the authority to do one thing and one thing only, and that is to designate national monuments," said Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney for Earthjustice in Denver.
The power to remove monument designations lies solely with Congress, she said.
Earthjustice represents eight environmental groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Sierra Club, in a federal lawsuit filed Monday over Trump's action on Grand Staircase-Escalante.
The Trump administration argues that Republican and Democratic presidents, including John F. Kennedy, have reduced monuments at least 18 times. Kennedy was the last president to do so under the Antiquities Act, taking away and adding land to Bandelier National Monument in 1963.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, contends that because presidents amended national monuments in the past, there is precedent for it. He also contends, as do some Washington think tanks, that presidents have the power to rescind monuments.
"If you create it by fiat, you can rescind it by fiat or shrink it by fiat," he said.
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney Steve Bloch said it has been more than 50 years since any attempt to repeal or adjust monument boundaries, and no one challenged any of the presidents' actions in court.
That's significant because Congress in 1976 passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which clarified that lawmakers retained for themselves the authority to redraw monument maps, he said.
The Conservation Lands Foundation, Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology have also banded together to sue in federal court in Washington, D.C., saying the president's proclamation is an illegal attack on protected public lands.
Grand Staircase-Escalante is one of the world’s hotbeds of paleontological research and discovery, world-class destination for recreation and natural beauty, and is a major economic driver for small businesses in the area, they say.
None of the groups filing lawsuits are seeking immediate injunctions to block Trump's decree, which doesn't take effect for 60 days. Pidot said there doesn't appear to be any immediate threat to the land, but requesting an injunction would be an option if that changes.