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When President Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate Bears Ears National Monument on December 28th, 2016, he granted a new layer of protection to some of the most spectacular places in southern Utah. There is of course Cedar Mesa, with its incredible canyons running toward the San Juan River. There is White Canyon to the west of Natural Bridges. There are the Bears Ears themselves and the high ponderosa forests of Elk Ridge. To the north there’s Beef Basin and Indian Creek. The new monument withdrew Lockhart Basin, adjacent to Canyonlands National Park, from future energy leasing. Nearly 100,000 archaeological and cultural sites were covered by the proclamation, including House on Fire and Moon House ruins.

Equally important, the proclamation elevated the voices of the Native American tribes who have ancestral ties to the region. The Bears Ears proposal was led by five Tribes—the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Ute Indian Tribes. For the first time in American history, these Tribes would have a greater say in the management of these culturally important lands.

On December 4, 2017, President Trump ignored millions of public comments and repealed Bears Ears National Monument, replacing it with two much smaller, non-contiguous units totaling less than 230,000 acres (an 83% reduction). The unprecedented act left rare archaeological sites and stunning wildlands without protection from looting, prospecting, oil and gas drilling, uranium mining, or off-road vehicle damage.

Thankfully, four years later, on October 8th, 2021, President Biden signed a proclamation restoring Bears Ears National Monument to its full, original boundaries—plus the additional 12,000 acres previously added to the Trump-era Indian Creek unit. The monument will now need a new management plan, and in the meantime must be managed to meet the terms of President Biden’s proclamations.

Ongoing Litigation

The Tribes immediately sued President Trump over the repeal, and SUWA joined other conservation organizations in a separate lawsuit charging that the president violated the 1906 Antiquities Act and the U.S. Constitution by eviscerating the monument. Earthjustice is representing nine groups challenging President Trump’s unlawful action: The Wilderness Society, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, the Grand Canyon Trust, Defenders of Wildlife, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, and the Center for Biological Diversity. The Natural Resources Defense Council and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are co-plaintiffs in the case, represented by counsel from those organizations. Now that President Biden has restored Bears Ears National Monument, the parties will discuss next steps, including whether the case should be stayed and potentially how to address mining claims located during the past 3 ½ years.


Cultural site in Bears Ears National Monument. Copyright Tim Peterson