Biden to restore 3 national monuments cut by Trump

U.S.

FILE – This May 8, 2017 aerial file photo shows Arch Canyon within Bears Ears National Monument on May 8, 2017, in Utah. President Joe Biden will expand two sprawling national monuments in Utah that have been at the center of a public lands tug-of-war that has played out over three presidential administrations, the state’s governor said Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — President Joe Biden will restore two sprawling national monuments in Utah that have been at the center of a long-running public lands dispute, and a separate marine conservation area in New England that recently has been used for commercial fishing, according to people who have been briefed on the plan.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, released a statement Thursday expressing disappointment in Biden’s decision to restore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments, which were downsized significantly under President Donald Trump. Cox’s office said U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland informed the governor of Biden’s decision.

The monuments cover vast expanses of southern Utah where red rocks reveal petroglyphs and cliff dwellings and distinctive twin buttes bulge from a grassy valley. The Trump administration had cut Bears Ears, on lands considered sacred to Native American tribes, by 85% and slashed Grand Staircase-Escalante by nearly half.

Both monuments were created by Democratic presidents and totaled more than 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares). Trump’s actions cut Bears Ears to just over 200,000 acres (80,900 hectares) and left Grand Staircase-Escalante at about 1 million acres (405,000 hectares).

The White House and the Interior Department declined to comment Thursday, but two Democratic aides and others who were briefed on the plan said Biden’s order will actually enlarge Bears Ears, since it includes a small parcel added by Trump when he downsized the overall monument.

The plan also restores protections in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument in the Atlantic Ocean, southeast of Cape Cod. The people who were briefed on the plan spoke on the condition of anonymity, since the proposal has not been made public.

Trump had also made a rule change to allow commercial fishing at the marine monument, an action that was heralded by fishing groups but derided by environmentalists who pushed Biden and Haaland to restore protections against fishing.

Protecting the marine monument would “safeguard this invaluable area for the fragile species that call it home” and demonstrate the administration’s commitment to science, said Jen Felt, ocean campaign director for the Conservation Law Foundation.

Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, praised the Biden administration in a statement, saying restoring the monuments shows its dedication to “conserving our public lands and respecting the voices of Indigenous Peoples.”

“It’s time to put Trump’s cynical actions in the rear-view mirror,” Grijalva said.

But Utah’s governor called Biden’s decision a “tragic missed opportunity.” The president’s action “fails to provide certainty as well as the funding for law enforcement, research and other protections which the monuments need and which only Congressional action can offer,” Cox said in a statement released with other state leaders.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney also criticized Biden, saying in a tweet the president had “squandered the opportunity to build consensus” and find a permanent solution for the monuments.

“Yet again, Utah’s national monuments are being used as a political football between administrations,” Romney said Thursday. “The decision to re-expand the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is a devastating blow to our state, local and tribal leaders and our delegation … today’s ‘winner take all’ mentality moved us further away from that goal.”

Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group, also applauded Biden’s decision and said she hopes it marks an initial step toward his goal of conserving at least 30% of U.S. lands and ocean by 2030.

“Thank you, President Biden,” Rokala said in a statement. “You have listened to Indigenous tribes and the American people and ensured these landscapes will be protected for generations to come.”

Trump’s cuts ironically increased the national attention to Bears Ears, Rokala said. She called on the federal government to increase funding to manage the landscape and handle growing crowds.

Haaland, the first Indigenous Cabinet secretary, traveled to Utah in April to visit the monuments, becoming the latest federal official to step into what has been a yearslong public lands battle. Haaland submitted her recommendations on the monuments in June.

Former President Barack Obama proclaimed Bears Ears a national monument in 2016, 20 years after former President Bill Clinton moved to protect Grand Staircase-Escalante. Bears Ears was the first site to receive the designation at the specific request of tribes.

The Bears Ears buttes, which overlook a grassy valley, are considered a place of worship for many tribes, according to Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. The group includes the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe.

Hopi Chairman Timothy L. Nuvangyaoma called Biden’s action a “significant step forward.”

“We do need to protect these sacred sites that not only the Hopi tribe but other tribes find significant within their history,” he told Indigenous news outlet Indian Country Today.

The Trump administration’s reductions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante paved the way for potential coal mining and oil and gas drilling on lands that were previously off-limits. However, activity was limited because of market forces.

Conservative state leaders considered the size of both monuments U.S. government overreach and applauded the reductions.

Environmental, tribal, paleontological and outdoor recreation organizations, however, sued to restore their original boundaries, arguing presidents lack legal authority to change monuments their predecessors created. Meanwhile, Republicans argued Democratic presidents have misused the Antiquities Act signed by President Theodore Roosevelt to designate monuments beyond what’s necessary to protect archaeological and cultural resources.

The Biden administration has said the decision to review the monuments was part of an expansive plan to tackle climate change and reverse the Trump administration’s “harmful” policies.

Fishing groups opposed both the creation of the ocean monument and the process used to create it. Obama used the Antiquities Act to establish it, undermining years of work by fishing groups, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

“These fishing areas have a way to be managed that is a little bit cumbersome, a little bit time-consuming, but it brings all the stakeholders together,” McCarron said.

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Daly reported from Washington, D.C. Associated Press writer Patrick Whittle in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.

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