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Utah sues to stop restoration of boundaries at Bears Ears, Grand Staircase monuments

Bears Ears National Monument in Utah includes land considered sacred to Native American tribes in the Four Corners region.
Kirk Siegler/NPR
Bears Ears National Monument in Utah includes land considered sacred to Native American tribes in the Four Corners region.

The state of Utah is suing the Biden administration over its restoration of the original boundaries of two large national monuments — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante — after former President Trump slashed protections for them in 2017.

The move is the latest in years of partisan legal wrangling over the monuments' creation and continued protection and the role of the federal government in providing that protection. The U.S. government controls vast amounts of public land in the West, including roughly two-thirds of all the land in Utah.

President Clinton created Grand Staircase in 1996 and President Obama established Bears Ears, a controversial 1.3 million-acre designation, shortly before he left office. Both have long been fought by Utah's Republican delegation and several governors including current Gov. Spencer Cox.

"The vast size of the expanded Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments draws unmanageable visitation levels to these lands without providing any of the tools necessary to adequately conserve and protect these resources," the delegation said in a statement Wednesday.

Bears Ears National Monument in Utah includes land considered sacred to Native American tribes in the Four Corners region.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
/
Kirk Siegler/NPR
Bears Ears National Monument in Utah includes land considered sacred to Native American tribes in the Four Corners region.

The legal challenge is less about visitation and environmental impacts and more focused on a relatively obscure law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 called the Antiquities Act. It's intended to protect cultural artifacts and other important archeological sites in the West and the limited public land around them. Utah officials say the Act was abused by Democratic presidents to make sweeping environmental protections without the consent of Congress.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Utah alleges Biden's orders last October were unlawful, the latest example of what Utah officials say are "abuses" of the scope of the Antiquities Act by U.S. presidents. The state is asking a federal court to throw out the additional protections, but the suit does not appear to specify what the boundaries — and protections — of the national monuments should consist of instead.

The most recent legal drama stems from 2017, when then President Donald Trump briefly flew to Salt Lake City and signed an order slashing the size of Bears Ears, in the state's remote southeastern corner, by nearly three quarters, and nearby Grand Staircase by close to half. After pressure by Native American tribes late last year, President Biden signed another order restoring their boundaries.

Bears Ears in particular has become a flashpoint in a broader environmental debate over restoring and in some cases giving back ancestral land to Native American tribes who were sequestered to reservations in many cases long distances from their ancestral land. The Bears Ears area in Utah's famous red rock canyon country is home to ancient petroglyphs, important plants traditionally gathered for food and ceremonies and sacred burial grounds.

"These are some of the things that Navajos respect and consider — it's a part of their religion. It's just like a church with the Anglo population," said Mark Maryboy, a retired Navajo leader, in a 2021 interview with NPR.

Native American and environmental groups have fought for years to protect the land, lobbying for a monument or even national park to be managed and run by local tribes. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Department of Interior, led by the nation's first indigenous cabinet secretary formalized a co-management plan for the monument with several area tribes.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.