WASHINGTON – Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has recommended in a confidential report that President Joe Biden restore full protections to three national monuments diminished by President Donald Trump, including Utah’s Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante and a huge marine reserve off New England. The move, described by two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was not yet public, would preserve about 5 million acres of federal land and water.
A broad coalition of conservationists, scientists and tribal activists has urged Biden to expand the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, which were established by Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, respectively, to their original boundaries. Trump cut Bears Ears by nearly 85%, and Grand Staircase-Escalante almost in half, in December 2017. A year ago, he permitted commercial fishing on the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, which removed most of the monument’s protections.
The White House is still deliberating, according to these people, but Biden favors the idea of overturning Trump’s actions. Employing the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the president broad latitude to protect threatened land and water, ranks as one of the easiest ways for Biden to conserve areas unilaterally.
Neither the White House nor the Interior Department would comment when asked about the matter Monday. But Justice Department lawyers confirmed in a filing with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia earlier this month that Interior submitted its recommendations to the White House on June 2.
Conservationists celebrated Haaland’s recommendation.
“These sites are sacred spaces that provide healing and sustain life,” Theresa Pierno, president and chief executive of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in an email. “They preserve troves of ancient fossils and artifacts and hold centuries of human history. And they border some of our most iconic national park landscapes in the country. There’s no question that these treasured lands and waters deserve the utmost protections.”
Pierno called Haaland’s recommendation “a testament to the Tribal nations, local communities and businesses, conservation organizations and countless people across the country who spoke out and fought tirelessly to protect” the monuments, and urged Biden to accept it.
All three areas have been embroiled in legal fights for years. Fishing operators challenged Obama’s 2016 decision to restrict commercial activities for 4,913 square miles off Cape Cod, Mass., which banned seabed mining and some fishing activities immediately while giving lobster and red crab operators seven years to stop fishing there. The region is home to many species of deep-sea coral, sharks, sea turtles, seabirds and deep-diving marine mammals, as well as massive underground canyons and seamounts that rise as high as 7,700 feet from the ocean floor.
“This area is very important to us,” said Jim Budi, an official with the American Sword and Tuna Harvesters, in an interview. He added that his members brought in about 25% of their annual catch from the region last summer after Trump lifted commercial fishing restrictions. They’ve sustainably caught swordfish by staying below limits set by federal regulators, he said. Reviving the Obama-era limits, Budi said, “doesn’t do any conservation good, whatsoever.”
In Utah, many ranchers and Republican politicians pressed Trump to scale back the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, both of which boast dramatic slot canyons, stunning mesas and unspoiled terrain for wildlife to roam. They also hold treasures that could yield significant profit, including coal, uranium and gas. Looters have targeted Bears Ears’ archaeological sites, which are sacred to several tribes that trace their roots to the area, as well as the myriad fossils buried within Grand Staircase-Escalante.
Advocacy groups have been fighting Trump’s orders to lift those protections at all three sites.
The five tribes that make up the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition – the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni – spent the Trump years “hunkering down” and organizing the effort to restore the national monument on land in southeastern Utah they view as central to their culture and history, Pat Gonzales-Rogers, the group’s executive director, said in an interview.
Told about Haaland’s recommendation to the White House to restore Bears Ears, Gonzales-Rogers said, “If that is indeed the case, we certainly stand in support.”
He added: “We were optimistic all along. And I think for me this is the fruition of a lot of the efforts of the leadership as well as the staff of the coalition. It is the thought, the vision, as well as the articulation from all of our tribal leaders. It would be a great and fantastic day.”
On his first day in office, Biden ordered Interior to review the three monument designations, in consultation with other key agencies, as part of a broader executive order aimed at expanding environmental protections. The president has also instructed the department to take the lead in fulfilling his pledge to protect 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030, although the administration has offered few details about how it will execute that plan.
In April, Haaland visited the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in her first trip as interior secretary. She met with Utah Republican politicians including Gov. Spencer Cox and Sen. Mitt Romney, who have warned Biden against using an executive order to restore the monuments. Utah Republicans say they want federal legislation that would define the two sites’ boundaries so that subsequent administrations couldn’t keep changing them.
The past year of the coronavirus pandemic put national parks and monuments to the test nationwide, as Americans in great numbers took refuge in outdoor spaces. More than 420,000 people are estimated to have visited Bears Ears last year. Volunteers in the area have been dismayed by tourists leaving behind trash, scribbling over ancient rock art and looting the remnants of Native American settlements.
The tribal coalition had initially asked the Obama administration to protect 1.9 million acres around Bears Ears but it established boundaries spanning 1.35 million acres. The tribes have also been asking the Biden administration for the larger boundary as well as more authority to help manage the monument along with the federal government. While Trump shrank the site to encompass 228,784 acres in two separate parcels, his declaration added about 1,200 acres that were not in Obama’s initial designation.
Haaland’s recommendation to restore the Obama-era boundaries was a “good place” to start, Gonzales-Rogers said, although he added that there should be more discussion to define how tribes and the government could manage the monument in a collaborative way.
Even if Biden accepts the secretary’s advice, a protracted court fight probably would follow.
Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said in a phone interview that he is confident that the administration could defend expanding the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments. In 2004 the Utah Association of Counties and the Mountain States Legal Foundation lost a lawsuit challenging the original size of Grand Staircase-Escalante, a ruling that was upheld on appeal.
“We know that presidents have the authority to do this,” Bloch said. “There’s not a single instance where that’s been overturned.”
Still, Chief Justice John Roberts gave some conservatives hope three months ago when he sharply criticized the expanse of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. Noting that the law was initially aimed at protecting Pueblo artifacts in the Southwest, he said the accompanying protected land must “be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
“A statute permitting the President in his sole discretion to designate as monuments ‘landmarks,’ ‘structures,’ and ‘objects’ – along with the smallest area of land compatible with their management – has been transformed into a power without any discernible limit to set aside vast and amorphous expanses of terrain above and below the sea,” Roberts wrote, as the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court decision on the monument. “The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument at issue in this case demonstrates how far we have come from indigenous pottery.”
Atlantic Red Crab Company owner Jon Williams, who has intervened in an ongoing lawsuit to defend Trump’s changes to the monument, said he wouldn’t hesitate to challenge the administration should it reimpose restrictions there.
“I’m already standing by,” he said. “And we’ve already been given a road map to the Supreme Court.”