In one of her first announcements as Interior secretary, Deb Haaland said Wednesday she will tour Utah next month to hear leaders’ concerns about the proposed restoration of two big national monuments, fulfilling a pledge she made during her confirmation hearing.
Nearly two months ago, on his first day in office, President Joe Biden ordered the review of his predecessor’s controversial move slashing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments by nearly 2 million acres. It is widely anticipated that Biden will restore the monuments in accordance with pledges he made as a candidate to protect large swaths of the nation’s lands and waters.
Haaland, a former New Mexico congresswoman and an enrolled member of Laguna Pueblo, “is looking forward to visiting Utah in April to meet with stakeholders, tribes and elected leaders,” Interior communications director Melissa Schwartz said in a statement. “The Interior Department’s report to the president on national monuments, as called for in Executive Order 14008, will reflect those conversations and will be transmitted to the White House following the trip.”
Haaland was sworn in Tuesday as the nation’s 54th Interior secretary and the first Native American ever to serve in a presidential Cabinet.
In 2017, President Donald Trump cut Bears Ears and Grand Staircase by about 1 million acres each in a gesture that was seen partly as a political favor to Utah Republican leaders unhappy with federal oversight of much of Utah’s lands.
Wielding the 1906 Antiquities Act, Democratic presidents established Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase in 2016 and 1996, respectively, against the wishes of state and local leaders and without regard for the designations’ impact on local “customs, culture and heritage,” according to a resolution passed by the Utah Legislature last session. The designations, totaling nearly 3.2 million acres, harmed the economies of southern Utah, the resolution states, making an allegation that is hotly disputed by many economists.
Utah leaders complained that presidents have “abused” the Antiquities Act for political gain, yet all past legal challenges to monument designations, large and small, have failed.
Sponsored by Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, HCR12 encourages Biden to “work with Utah’s congressional delegation, the state’s legislative and executive branches, local communities, and the tribes to develop a long-term, sustainable solution.”
The resolution further argues that Utah’s monument question should be resolved through legislation, which “has the advantage of being able to provide solutions that a presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act cannot, such as addressing needs for education, interpretation and enforcement….Legislative solutions may promote greater innovation.”
Unless Utah is exempted from the Antiquities Act, however, congressional action would do nothing to restrict a future president from enlarging or reducing the monuments as he or she sees fit.
President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears shortly before leaving office at the request of five tribes with ancestral ties to a region rich in scenic wonders and archaeological treasures, surrounding Bears Ears Buttes in San Juan County. Those tribes, along with various environmental, science and business groups, sued to invalidate Trump’s reduction of both monuments. The five suits have been consolidated and remain pending in federal court in Washington, D.C.
In a joint statement, Utah’s political leadership, including Gov. Spencer Cox and the entire Republican congressional delegation, said they were encouraged that the Biden administration extended its 60-day deadline for the monument review and praised Haaland for promising to visit Utah.
“Her trip to Utah will allow her the opportunity to speak with the people who live and work on the lands, whose voices may otherwise go unheard, before making any recommendations to the president,” the leaders’ statement said. “We are also confident that this trip will successfully highlight the need for a permanent legislative solution for determining appropriate boundaries for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, with statutory protections to prevent abuses under the Antiquities Act for the state of Utah. We look forward to continuing our work on these issues with Secretary Haaland after her visit.”