On Monday, President Donald Trump traveled to Salt Lake City and shrank two national monuments: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
After giving a speech at Utah’s capitol building, Trump signed two proclamations that removed federal protections from 85 percent of land that was once Bears Ears National Monument and roughly half of what was Grand Staircase-Escalante, opening the region to potential drilling and exploration for other natural resources. The decision comes after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted recommendations to the White House in August after his four-month long review of 27 national monuments.
The proclamations break Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante into five smaller national monuments. The two national monuments in the territory that was Bears Ears will be Shash Jáa and Indian Creek, with a combined land mass of 201,876 acres. The move drastically reduces the country’s newest national monument, formed in 2016 by then President Obama.
Grand Staircase-Escalante will become three separate monuments – Grand Staircase, Escalante Canyon, and Kaiparowits – totaling more than 1 million acres.
Removing roughly 1.15 million acres from Bears Ears is the largest reduction of any national monument by a president and makes Trump the first president to shrink a national monument since 1963. The decision and its fallout may set a new standard for how federal public land and conservation issues are handled across the country.
“No president has ever removed – eliminated – protection from public lands in the way that Trump proposes to do it,” says Chairman of the Conservation Lands Foundation Ed Norton.
Oil and natural gas companies have long been eyeing the land now stripped of federal protections. Former President Bill Clinton hindered plans to build a coal mine when he established Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. Parts of Bears Ears National Monument are potential sites for oil drilling and gas extraction.
“Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington,” Trump said in his speech. “And guess what? They’re wrong.”
Opening the land to energy interests may decrease populations of trophy-class animals – such as big horn sheep, deer and elk – which rely on resources located in the land that was Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
“There’s enough resources for them now, but you start reducing that by any bit and these species are inevitably going to suffer,” says Joshua Lenart, who is the chair of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Utah.
For Director of Environmental Activism for Patagonia Hans Cole, Trump’s move not only “could jeopardize public access, but also jeopardize the value inherent in the landscape.”
Bears Ears National Monument had cultural value for five Native American tribes in Utah, the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian and Pueblo of Zuni. All five tribes make up The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which lobbied for the establishment of Bears Ears and works to conserve the area.
Those five tribes filed a complaint Monday evening challenging the reduction of Bears Ears.
“The fact that it’s being revoked like this is a complete affront to those tribes, and we didn’t hesitate to offer to defend them to the bitter end to help defend this area,” says Natalie Landreth, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, an organization representing three of the tribes in the suit.
Patagonia also plans to file a lawsuit over the Bears Ears decision, according to a press release. The company changed its home page Monday in protest of the decision. In addition, Environmental groups including The Conservation Lands Foundation, Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, have filed a lawsuit challenging Trump’s move to shrink Grand Staircase-Escalante, according to a press release. More lawsuits are expected.
Many legal experts say that the 1906 Antiquities Act and the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act preclude a president from reducing the size of national monuments. Others argue the Antiquities Act implicitly gives a president the power to shrink the size of a national monument—not just establish one.
The issue has never been settled in court. Robert Keiter, a professor of law and director of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land Resources and the Environment at the University of Utah, says “there’s quite a reasonable chance that it could ultimately end up before the Supreme Court” in three or four years.
A ruling in favor of the government might put boundaries of national monuments in flux. For example, if a future president expanded a national monument’s borders, the next president may reduce them. Then, the next president could expand the national monument again—and so on.
“Everybody, I think, wants some stability and certainty about what lands are protected and what lands are open to development going forward, and to have it bounce back and forth almost like a ping pong ball would not be helpful,” Keiter says.