President Barack Obama designated the Bears Ears area of southeastern Utah as a national monument Wednesday afternoon, prompting a wave of criticism from prominent Utah Republicans while winning praise from tribal leaders and Utah Democrats.
The designation is one of two made Wednesday, with the second being Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada. Together the two monument areas cover more than one million acres in Utah and Nevada, according to the White House.
Here’s President Obama’s statement:
“Today, I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes. Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes. Importantly, today I have also established a Bears Ears Commission to ensure that tribal expertise and traditional knowledge help inform the management of the Bears Ears National Monument and help us to best care for its remarkable national treasures.
Following years of public input and various proposals to protect both of these areas, including legislation and a proposal from tribal governments in and around Utah, these monuments will protect places that a wide range of stakeholders all agree are worthy of protection. We also have worked to ensure that tribes and local communities can continue to access and benefit from these lands for generations to come.”
Members of Utah’s Congressional delegation say they plan to work with the incoming Trump administration to find ways of reversing the move, and the Utah Attorney General’s Office says a legal challenge to the designation is also in the works.
Utah Senator Orrin Hatch released a statement on the designation, which he called an “egregious abuse of executive power” that shows the president cares more about “far-left special interest groups” than those who live in Utah.
The senator states in part:
“With this astonishing and egregious abuse of executive power, President Obama has shown that far-left special interest groups matter more to him than the people who have lived on and cared for Utah’s lands for generations. For Utahns in general, and for those in San Juan County in particular, this is an affront of epic proportions and an attack on an entire way of life.
The President’s proposal, like so many others, goes well beyond the original authorities of the Antiquities Act, which was intended to give presidents only limited power to designate special landmarks, such as a unique natural arch or the site of old cliff dwellings, in anticipation of broad support from Congress. The President was never meant to set aside millions of acres against the express wishes of local communities and their elected representatives.”
Hatch also stated he plans to meet with Interior Secretary nominee Ryan Zinke to discuss the prospect of reversing the designation, and he said that conversation will “largely determine my support for his confirmation.” The senator also states he plans to work with fellow Utah Senator Mike Lee to sponsor legislation to exempt Utah from Antiquities Act Designations.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes issued a statement threatening a lawsuit:
“The Antiquities Act was passed to protect archaeological sites from pillage by treasure hunters with narrow, focused designations of thousands of acres or only what was absolutely necessary. It has turned into a tool for the Executive Branch to bypass proper Congressional authority, to designate millions of acres at a time and far beyond what is necessary to preserve sacred sites.
“Rather than shut out local residents, the Administration should look for ways to strengthen schools, pave roads, and build the local economy. Instead, it rides roughshod over repeatedly expressed local concerns and exceeds the law’s scope as intended by Congress when it passed the Antiquities Act over a century ago.
My office is working closely with the Governor’s office, federal and state legislators, and San Juan County to file a lawsuit challenging this egregious overreach by the Obama Administration. This case is different from other past challenges by states and counties and we are confident in our chances of success. But the courtroom is not our only option. Our federal delegation is working hard to defund the designation or rescind it altogether. Additionally, we look forward to working with the new Presidential Administration on ways to curtail or otherwise address the designation.”
Gov. Gary Herbert said he was disappointed by the designation, which he said ignores the will of the majority of Utahns. Herbert states in part:
“This decision ignores the will of the majority of Utahns. It disregards the desire of Native American groups who count these lands as their heritage to co-manage this culturally important area. It overlooks the unanimous opposition of Utah’s statewide elected officials and Utah’s entire congressional delegation. It runs roughshod over a resolution from Utah’s legislature opposing such action. Today’s designation demonstrates how overreach from the federal government often disregards the well-being and interests of rural Americans.
This action will have long-term impacts on Utah and our public lands. Proper stewardship of public lands in the West requires an appreciation and understanding of our varied and unique terrain. Utahns know from sad experience how such unilateral and politically motivated monument designations can create division, distrust and conflict. Collaborative legislation, although more time-intensive, is the only durable solution to these complex issues.
As outraged as many people are with today’s decision, we know how to challenge this action appropriately through the many administrative, legal and legislative avenues available to us. We will aggressively pursue these options.”
Russel Begaye, President of the Navajo Nation, stated he is proud to be both Navajo and American Wednesday. In a statement he wrote about the history of the Bears Ears area, which he said was at one time a sacred refuge for Navajo hiding from a forcible round-up by the U.S. Calvary. He applauded the designation of a national monument in that area, and he said the action comes with the approval of five sovereign tribal nations who petitioned to preserve the land in question.
Begaye stated in part:
“This beautiful piece of land stretches for over a million acres of land across the southern edge of the state. Its ancient cliff dwellings, ceremonial sites, abundant rock art, countless cultural artifacts, winding creek beds, and expanses of desert land, contain the great history of my nation.
This place served to protect my family then, just as it has protected many Native American people throughout the years.
Today, President Barack Obama has signed a proclamation to protect this land as a national monument for future generations of Navajo people and for all Americans. Thanks to his action, this land will be finally given the legal reverence and protection it deserves.”
Utah Rep. Rob Bishop issued a videotaped statement condemning the monument:
Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz also issued a statement condemning the designation of an “unwanted Midnight Monument”, a reference to the action coming just weeks before the end of Obama’s presidency.
Chaffetz stated in part:
“President Obama’s unilateral decision to invoke the Antiquities Act in Utah politicizes a long-simmering conflict. This unfortunate act threatens to further inflame controversies that were near resolution. The midnight monument is a slap in the face to the people of Utah, attempting to silence the voices of those who will bear the heavy burden it imposes. Furthermore, the decision is a major break with protocol previously followed by this administration. It does not have the support of the Governor, a single member of the state’s Congressional delegation, nor any local elected officials or state legislators who represent the area.
“After years of painstaking negotiations with a diverse coalition, Utah had a comprehensive bipartisan solution on the table that would have protected the Bears Ears and provided a balanced solution. Instead, the president’s midnight monument cherry picked provisions of the Public Lands Initiative and disregarded the economic development and multi-use provisions necessary for a balanced compromise. In reality, a win-win solution never really had a chance as the very threat of the Antiquities Act prevented a serious negotiation with the stakeholders of PLI – many of whom never wanted a compromise to begin with.”
Utah Rep. Mia Love said the move undermines the economy and lifestyle of the people who live in the area.
“By unilaterally designating the Bears Ears area of San Juan County a National Monument, President Obama has undermined the economy and lifestyle of the people who live there, the religious interests of the Native Americans who reside in San Juan County, and ignored local authority. Again behaving more like a dictator instead of a representative of people, he ignored Utah, which is united in opposition to this action. I join our delegation, state officials and the people of Utah in the pledge to use every tool in our arsenal to undo what he has done, and restore the blessings of freedom he wants so badly to remove from us in his final days. “
Rep. Chris Stewart also expressed his disgust with the move:
“The creation of the Bears Ears National Monument marks the second time in the recent past that a president has used the Antiquities Act to lock up millions of acres of land in Utah without daring to set foot in the state. I am disgusted by the process and will fight this monument with every tool at my disposal, including through the appropriations process.”
Commissioners in San Juan County also spoke out in opposition to the designation:
“The push for a monument did not originate from those most impacted by this decision; instead, it came from outside special interest groups who used deception and collusion to drown out local voices. San Juan County has only to look to our neighbors in Garfield and Kane counties to see the devastating consequences this process produces – the destruction of archaeological and cultural resources, the closure of public schools, and a shattered economy.
Our families, our local tribes, and our community deserve better – they deserve to be heard and respected. As elected representatives of San Juan County, we call on Congress and the incoming president to heed the voices of locals who care for and love our county’s public lands the most by rescinding this monument designation.”
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes stated he was disappointed by the designation, stating in part:
“We are truly disappointed that President Obama today chose to use the Antiquities Act to unilaterally declare a 1.35-million-acre Monument in Utah. The Antiquities Act, created by Teddy Roosevelt, was never intended to be used in this way and only the smallest area necessary for the purpose of protecting significant archaeological or historical sites is allowed. Not only is that clearly not the case here, but this administration has had no real conversations with those who will be affected by this designation, let alone any study of what “antiquities” they are attempting to protect.
Adding to a long list of executive actions that threaten the sovereignty of the states and the citizens of this nation to chart their own course, our president has chosen to once again subvert the will of the people. Earlier this month, nearly all elected officials who represent the area, from local to federal, assembled at the Utah State Capitol to plead with President Obama to resist the temptation to grant these types of political favors. This action betrays the interests of Utahns, stands in the way of better stewardship of the land we all love and cherish and ultimately amounts to a blatant federal land grab.”
Rep. Joel Briscoe, House Democratic Caucus Whip in Utah and a member of the Comission for the Stewardship of Public Lands, called the monument designation the right thing to do for Utah and the country:
“This monument speaks to our core knowledge that this beautiful land was given to us to care for, learn from, and grow. Proposals to protect these sacred lands have been on the drawing board for 80 years. For decades, presidents, governors, state and local leaders have studied the best ways to protect these special places. We cannot ignore the deeply spiritual aspects of this land, its meaning to those who use it and love it, and its immeasurable worth to people now, and in the future. A monument like this is so much greater than all of us, than any political squabble. Creating the Bears Ears National Monument is the right thing to do, for Utah, for our country, and for our future.”
In a joint statement, Representatives Keven Stratton, R-Orem; Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan; Mike Noel, R-Kanab; and Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, blasted the President:
“Like the unilateral tyranny exercised by the King of England against the American colonies two and a half centuries ago, our President has exercised an unconstitutional unilateral exercise of the Executive power to establish a monument greater in size than a number of the original thirteen states. Our children are the biggest losers and our Federal Executive Branch is well aware that this designation goes against the voice of the American Citizens living within the boarders of the State of Utah and an overwhelming super majority of those elected to represent them. This Bears Ears designation will not survive a constitutional review by our Judicial Branch and we pledge to take and support every lawful action available under the rule of law to overturn this act of repulsive political cronyism.”
The Utah Democratic Party also issued a statement in support of the new national monument:
“We are proud of President Obama for recognizing the need to protect the spectacular natural and historic lands in the Bears Ears area. Utah leaders have deliberated for years regarding how to best preserve Bears Ears. When our GOP leaders failed to find a solution that prioritized protecting these cherished lands while showing respect for indigenous culture and traditions, an executive order became a last resort to preserve this amazing part of Utah’s landscape. This designation will only help grow our booming outdoor industry, bring more to Utah’s economy, and ensure our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy Utah’s vast and beautiful landscape for many years.”
“We need to be good stewards of the land for generations to come, and where our Republican leaders have failed, Utah Democrats are committed to fighting for our public lands.”