Before he turned over the keys to the White House to a Republican administration, Barack Obama placed additional protections on federal land and historically significant artifacts in Utah by creating the Bears Ears National Monument under the authority of the Antiquities Act. Now that Donald Trump is in the Oval Office, some Utahns believe the time is right to overturn the work of President Obama and his administration. Utah’s politicians are looking to revisit the action with an eye toward undoing the designation and are requesting that President Trump rescind the Bears Ears National Monument.
The Bears Ears National Monument designation has proven to be extremely rancorous for several years, but with a new president (who has signalled his sympathies with extraction industries by appointing former Governor Rick Perry (Republican – Texas) as the Secretary of Energy), the political drumbeats have now resumed. Utah is making an attempt to honor the people of San Juan County and their local opposition to the Monument. As presently configured, the Monument comprises 1.3 million acres of federal land in Utah’s southeast corner near the towns of Bluff and Mexican Hat.
Making an impassioned plea before Utah’s Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Standing Committee, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes (Republican – Draper), presented HCR 11 – Concurrent Resolution Urging the President to Rescind the Bears Ears National Monument Designation. Hughes used the same analogies that have been hitched to views opposing the newest National Monument in Utah since the debate first began. The rancor and disappointment began with the failed, congressional Public Lands Initiative introduced to an underwhelmed committee in Washington by Utah’s Rob Bishop.
“I take the voice of those who live closest to that area, it’s like if someone wanted to encumber your house, I would listen to what you had to say about your house and if you had neighbors who had an opinion, I would listen to them… it’s almost an assumption that those people [in San Juan County, Utah] are foreigners to that land. They’ve lived among that that land… they love that land,” said Hughes, who was among Donald Trump’s earliest supporters at the time the 45th president was seeking the Republican nomination.
Most of the overflow crowd in the hearing room weren’t in agreement and were given a limited time to go on the record in opposition to Hughes’ resolution. House Minority Leader Brian King, (Democrat – Salt Lake City) when reached afterward, said “It’s not at all clear that the [new] President has the authority to rescind [the declaration].” As an attorney, King shared his concern that “There have been actions by other sitting presidents to modify a designation, but that’s a different matter than rescinding one.”
Since congress created the authority by law articulated in the Antiquities Act, many of Hughes’ critics feel it would take congressional action to undo the designation of the newest National Monument in Utah. “If President Trump were to completely reverse the action done by the previous President, I can imagine that the probability for litigation would be high,” said King. No precedent exists for the nullification of a lawful effort to protect federal lands containing abundant archeological artifacts and native cultural significance.
Proponents of Hughes’ resolution brought up the problem they perceive with the 150,000 plus acres within the Obama designation that belong to Utah’s Schools Institute Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). They believe it is a form of theft from the school children of the state because the land represents assets managed to benefit schools, a benefit Utah received upon being admitted to the Union. Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City), and others have described that rhetoric as disingenuous because a fair value purchase or exchange for the trust land is prescribed within the designation. The Obama administration’s monument effort was overseen by then Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a series of meetings and reviews involving her top-level staff and many Utahns, as both non-native and native stakeholders.
At one point in the Utah Senate hearing, Committee Chair Margaret Dayton (Republican – Orem) stopped all public comment due to an outburst of applause over testimony about Utah’s wild and scenic lands, and specifically the internationally acclaimed “Dark Skies” available in many parts of the state. A woman who attempted to offer her comment was then forcibly removed.
The Utah Dine Bikeyah, (UDB) one of the first tribal coalition advocacy organizations for Bears Ears, entered into the record their letter to the new Secretary of the Interior, Montanan Ryan Zinke. Their letter invites the new Secretary to tour the area with tribal spiritual leaders from the entire Four Corners area. The letter states in part, “This area [now Bears Ears National Monument] is deeply treasured by our people and has been subjected to grave-robbing, vandalism, mining and most recently the political backlash of Utah elected officials.” Willie Greyeyes, the Board Chair of the UDB, concluded his February 2nd letter to Secretary Zinke by saying, “When you come to Utah to visit, please meet with us in Monument Valley, Utah and we will provide you with an experience you will never forget and you will see for yourself why this place matters. Finally, we do not understand the reasons why Utah politicians are threatening to undo an action they have stated for years they support in principle, and we wonder why they still refuse to work with us the respectful and proper way, by talking face-to-face.”