In a White House ceremony on October 8th, President Biden—surrounded by Tribal and conservation leaders, congressional stalwarts, and members of his cabinet—exercised the authority given to him by Congress under the Antiquities Act and signed proclamations restoring Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments to their full and original glory.

The president described his decision to do so as “the easiest thing” he’d done in his first year in office. With his signatures, he kept the faith with Native American Tribes and conservationists that restoration would be a priority for this administration. We think it’s appropriate to take a moment, celebrate the work that once again protected these monuments and the sacred sites, fossils, unique ecosystems, and wildness within them—then look to what lies ahead.

How It All Began

On a bleak December day in 2017, President Trump flew into Salt Lake City for his first and only trip to Utah during his term in office. In his few hours on the ground, Trump—with the temerity characteristic of his entire presidency—did what no other president in modern times had done: he dismantled established national monuments, reducing Grand Staircase-Escalante by roughly 900,000 acres and Bears Ears by a shocking 1.1 million acres. It was widely reviled as the largest assault on public lands in the nation’s history.

And for what? Did he buy the self-pitying nonsense from the Utah delegation that the monuments were “federal overreach?” Did he owe Senator Orrin Hatch a favor? Or did his Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke—who met privately and repeatedly with monument opponents—fill Trump’s head with greedy fantasies about “really great” uranium and coal mines that would follow disestablishment. In any case, the damage was done and the protections that had been in place for more than 20 years in the case of Grand Staircase, and sought for even longer in the case of Bears Ears, were scrapped.

Devil’s Garden and the Straight Cliffs, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Photo © Jeff Foott

Court Battles, Mining Claims, Management Plans, and Confusion

Before he even left Utah’s airspace SUWA, Native American Tribes, and a coalition of conservation groups and businesses had challenged Trump’s illegal decisions in federal court in Washington, DC. Over the next three-and-a-half years we successfully teed up the central legal questions the court needed to resolve. First, did Trump’s actions violate the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the power to establish, but not dismantle, national monuments? Second, did Congress ratify Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through several deliberate acts, including the exchange of all Utah school trust lands out of the monument? Disappointingly, the court never issued a decision.

An immediate impact of Trump’s assault was that in early February 2018 all the lands he cut from the monuments were open to the location of new hardrock mining claims. This included claims for uranium, lithium, and alabaster (but not oil, gas, or coal which are “leasable” minerals and go through a different sale process). Over the next three-and-a-half years, dozens of new mining claims were located and recorded in the excised lands, and by October 2021 more than 15 remained. One claim in each monument has been developed. The “Creamsicle” claim in Grand Staircase-Escalante was mined briefly for alabaster but has since been reclaimed. And in Bears Ears, the “Easy Peasy” claim continues to produce uranium ore. A few other claimants have submitted plans of development and we’re keeping a sharp eye on those.

In the meantime, Trump’s Interior Department raced ahead to complete new management plans for the remnants of Bears Ears—what Trump referred to as the Indian Creek and Shash Jaa’ units—and the remaining monument lands and excluded lands of Grand Staircase-Escalante. The plans were completed in February 2020 and are pretty much what you’d expect from the Trump administration: frameworks that drove management to the lowest common denominator. The planning documents themselves recognized that their implementation would result in the degradation, if not outright destruction, of the very monument objects Presidents Clinton and Obama had protected. While the plans went into immediate effect, their implementation has been slow. SUWA, along with many of our partners, are closely watchdogging what happens on the ground.

Maybe the most damning legacy of Trump’s actions has been public confusion about what activities were permitted within the original monument boundaries and what those boundaries actually were. For example, almost immediately we saw illegal motorized use (whether deliberate or unintentional). Visitors told BLM law enforcement officers they thought Trump’s proclamations meant they were allowed to drive anywhere in the monuments.

And while visitors continued to come to the monuments, particularly during the pandemic, they were left without clear information about how to respectfully appreciate sacred sites and fossils or where to drive, camp, bike, or hike.

Monumental Restoration

In the lead-up to October’s monument restoration, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland held nation-to-nation meetings with Native American Tribes, met with members of Utah’s congressional delegation as well as state and local leaders, and heard from local communities and stakeholders. In April, Secretary Haaland also came to Utah for three days and toured Bears Ears with many of these same people, held stakeholder meetings in Blanding and Kanab, and called on visitor centers in Bluff and Kanab. In June, following those meetings and site visits, the Interior Department transmitted to the president the secretary’s report and recommendations regarding the fate of the monuments. They supported full restoration of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears.

At that point, all that was left to do was wait . . . and hope that President Biden would come through and take his place among presidents of both parties who, since 1906, have used the Antiquities Act to protect many of the nation’s most fragile and threatened objects and landscapes as national monuments.

Our hopes were well placed and on October 8th the President restored the two monuments. The proclamations go into great detail about the objects found within the monuments, the threats they face, and—in accordance with Congress’s direction under the Antiquities Act—how the restored monuments are the smallest size necessary to accomplish that goal.

With regard to Grand Staircase-Escalante, President Biden compared the landscape to a nesting doll of objects of historic and scientific interest: “The landscape as a whole is an important object that provides context for each of its constituent parts. Within the whole are distinct and unique areas, which are themselves objects qualifying for protection. In turn, each of those areas contain innumerable individual fossils, archaeological sites, rare species and other objects that are independently of historic or scientific interest and require protection under the Antiquities Act.”

“Remarkably, given its size, in the 25 years since its designation, Grand Staircase-Escalante has fulfilled the vision of an outdoor laboratory with great potential for diverse and significant scientific discoveries. During this period, hundreds of scientific studies and projects have been conducted within the monument, including investigating how the monument’s geology provides insight into the hydrology of Mars; discovering many previously unknown species of dinosaurs, some of which have become household names; unearthing some of the oldest marsupial fossils ever identified . . . [and] conducting extensive inventories of invertebrates, including the identification of more than 600 species of bees, some of which likely exist nowhere else on Earth . . .

“. . . Despite being the last place in the contiguous United States to be mapped and remaining a remote and primitive landscape to this day, the Grand Staircase-Escalante area has a long and dignified human history. The landscape teems with evidence of the efforts expended by both indigenous people and early Anglo pioneers to carve existences into an arid and unforgiving region.

“. . . Protection of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument will preserve its cultural, prehistoric, and historic legacy and maintain its diverse array of natural and scientific resources, ensuring that the prehistoric, historic, and scientific values of this area remain for the benefit of all Americans.”

—Presidential Proclamation on Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Oct. 8, 2021

As for Bears Ears, the President stated that “[f]ew national monuments more clearly meet the Antiquities Act’s criteria for protection than the Bears Ears Buttes and surrounding areas,” with its “unique density of significant cultural, historical, and archaeological artifacts spanning thousands of years.” And he noted that “[f]or more than 100 years, and sometimes predating the enactment of the Antiquities Act, Presidents, Members of Congress, Secretaries of the Interior, Tribal Nations, State and local governments, scientists, and local conservationists have understood and championed the need to protect the Bears Ears area.”

In addition to engaging in extensive nation-to-nation consultation in the lead-up to restoring Bears Ears, President Biden honored “the expertise and traditional and historical knowledge of the Tribal Nations.” To ensure that monument management decisions reflect and benefit from that wisdom and knowledge, the president re-established the Bears Ears Commission President Obama created in his original 2016 proclamation. The commission is charged with providing “guidance and recommendations on the development and implementation of management plans and on management of the entire monument.”

We’re grateful President Biden elevated Native voices through the Bears Ears Commission and are eager to help the commission succeed.

Bears Ears cultural site. Photo © Scott Smith

“Our songs, our languages, and our cultures are strong, and many people from many Indian tribes have sung and spoken in unison to protect this sacred place. Bears Ears is a living landscape. When I’ve been there, I’ve felt the warmth and joy of ancestors who’ve cared for this special place since time immemorial. It’s a place where you can stand in the doorway of a home where a family who lived thousands of years ago left behind a legacy of love and conservation for a place that sustained them for countless generations. Stories of existence, celebration, survival, and reverence are etched into the sandstone canyon walls. Sacred sited are dotted across the desert mesas.

“Cultural heritage in the form of ancient pots, arrowheads, clothing, seeds, and evidence of lives well lived are as inseparable from Bears Ears as the air we breathe at this moment. Today, children learn and sustain from their parents and elders the songs, traditions, and ceremonies that have been passed down from generation to generation at Bears Ears. This is a place that must be protected in perpetuity for every American and every child of the world.”

—Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s remarks on the restoration of Bears Ears National Monument,
Oct. 8, 2021

Stage Set for Bears Ears Land Exchange

By law, President Biden’s restoration of Bears Ears National Monument affected only the federal public lands within the monument’s exterior boundaries. Nestled within those boundaries are roughly 113,000 acres of scattered land Utah received at statehood to help fund state schools and institutions. Today, these so-called “state trust lands” are managed by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA).

Biden’s Bears Ears proclamation directs Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to “explore entering into a memorandum of understanding with the State of Utah that would set forth terms . . . for an exchange of lands owned by the State of Utah and administered by [SITLA] within the boundary of the monument for land of approximately equal value managed by BLM outside” the monument.

There is precedent for this kind of an exchange. Two years after President Clinton established Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Congress passed the “Utah Schools and Land Exchange Act of 1998” which exchanged out all SITLA-managed lands from the monument (and other scattered holdings) for federal lands elsewhere in Utah and also gave the state a $50 million check for its trouble. The 1998 Act was widely heralded as a milestone for Utah’s trust lands program.

We’re looking forward to working with SITLA, the BLM, and the Interior Department to get this land exchange started and then promptly across the finish line.

What Comes Next?

In many ways, our hardest work lies ahead. We must make sure that the BLM’s management of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears respects and fulfills the promise of Biden’s proclamations. There will be new management plans, but not for at least 18 to 24 months. Meanwhile, Trump’s wretched management plans remain in effect and will inevitably conflict with Biden’s new standards.

We will be watching several things in particular. First, the proclamation directs the BLM to meaningfully involve Native American Tribes from the outset, with a particular emphasis on Bears Ears. We will encourage the BLM to deliver on this commitment. Second, we will try to ensure that the new plans close the door on largescale vegetation removal through mechanical treatments like “chaining” and that the BLM only uses native seeds when it rehabilitates lands from wildfire. Third, we will work to reduce the miles of streambeds, two-tracks, and cow paths in Bears Ears that are open to motorized travel in the agency’s new travel plan. That should reduce vandalism and looting.

Finally, the BLM—working closely with Native American Tribes, state and local governments and non-profits—must tackle increasing visitation and its impacts. If you’ve been to either monument recently you know that some of the most popular places are literally being loved to death: defacement or damage to irreplaceable cultural sites, sprawling informal campsites with toilet paper in the bushes, and a maze of user-created trails (hiking and biking as well as motorized)—sometimes all in the same place.

Litigation on the Horizon

To no one’s very great surprise, the state of Utah and others have made clear they intend to sue President Biden over establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments. As the governor is surely aware, no court has overturned a president’s use of his authority under the Antiquities Act to create national monuments. Courts have rejected claims that monuments are “too big,” as well as the argument that protecting objects such as ecosystems and geology is outside the scope of the act. Utah and others tried this same approach regarding President Clinton’s establishment of Grand Staircase in 1996—and lost.

And yet it appears a virtual certainty that Utah will soon file suit. In mid-October, the state issued a “Request for Proposal to Provide Legal Services to Assist the Office of the Attorney General” to challenge Biden’s proclamation, meaning it is soliciting bids from private law firms (that will be paid by Utah taxpayers) to pursue these cases. It’s hard to imagine the total bill for this fool’s errand will be less than $10 million dollars.

That’s $10 million dollars Utah won’t spend on stewardship projects, highlighting for visitors how to respectfully appreciate fragile cultural sites and fossils, $10 million it won’t spend to support local communities and partners as they work to make the most out of the monument designations, and $10 million dollars that it will fritter away at the behest of a few insular politicians whose views are out of touch with the majority of Utahns. Disappointing, to say the least.

The Work Goes On

When President Biden finished signing the proclamations we felt a deep sense of elation and gratitude and enjoyed an afternoon of celebration. In the coming months there will be much work to do and we’ll be calling on SUWA members early and often to make sure the BLM gets it right and manages Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears as the crown jewels they clearly are.

—Steve Bloch

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, Autumn/Winter 2021 issue)