Speaking from Salt Lake City on Monday, President Donald Trump announced a massive reduction to Utah's Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
"Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington, and guess what: They're wrong," Trump said, before signing two presidential proclamations downsizing Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 50 percent. "As many of you know, past administrations have severely abused the purpose, spirit, and intent of a century-old law known as the Antiquities Act."
Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, presidents can set aside land as a national monument, protecting it from certain forms of development. Mining and drilling leases are banned within Bears Ears, for example, but cattle grazing is permitted. In April, Trump ordered a review of 27 national monuments; following the review in August, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recommended changes to six of them.
The Trump administration framed the cuts to the monuments as an issue of states' rights. "I've come to Utah to take a very historic action to reverse federal overreach and restore the rights of this land to your citizens," Trump told the crowd in Salt Lake City. "Under my administration we will advance that protection through a truly representative process, one that listens to the local communities that knows the land the best and that cherishes the land the most."
But conservationists worry that the proclamations amount to a thinly veiled attempt to open up protected land to the fossil fuel industry. And while Trump claims that Bears Ears was created over the "loud objections" of the locals, as Jimmy Tobias reported for Pacific Standard earlier this year, even in the West, most Americans support keeping national monument designations intact:
As a recent Colorado College poll makes plain, approximately 80 percent of voters in the American West favor leaving national monument designations in place, while only 13 percent favor removing such protections from public land. Meanwhile, as the Department of the Interior itself admits, the more than two million public comments submitted to it during the review were overwhelming pro-monument in nature, featuring sentiments like "Must we destroy everything?" and "Teddy Roosevelt had the right idea!"
The decision is sure to face legal challenges from conservation groups and Native American tribes, including the Navajo Nation, which has already promised to take the Trump administration to court. Bears Ears' 1.3 million acres is said to contain over 100,000 archeologically significant sites, including sacred locations like graves and ceremonial grounds. Whatever the outcome, it will be a precedent-setting case; the courts have never before considered whether a president can shrink the monuments set by his predecessors.