America’s irreplaceable natural treasures got a well-deserved reprieve from peril when President Joe Biden restored protections Friday for three national monuments. But Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, along with the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the Atlantic coast, deserve even stronger protections.
Former President Donald Trump’s cuts to protection of the Utah monuments in 2017 and the ocean area in 2020 showed how vulnerable national monuments can be to executive whims. Trump stripped away conservation designations on more than 2 million acres of land in Utah alone, plus nearly 5,000 square miles of Atlantic Ocean off New England.
Had Biden not reversed these wrongheaded moves, the Utah lands sacred to Native American tribes and sea canyons that nurture endangered species could have faced destructive incursions for profit. In the ocean, that’s commercial fishing that can harm the whale and turtle species that live in this habitat and few other places. In Utah, that’s any sort of commercial development — potentially, fossil fuel excavation — encroaching upon artifact-rich plateaus and juniper forests.
President Barack Obama created the Bears Ears monument in his waning days in office. When Trump rolled it back a year later, he struck the largest reduction of national monument land the country has ever seen. Preserving these areas ought not to be a political football for future administrations.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has been a righteous advocate for bringing back protections for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, which can remain cultural and recreational jewels for the entire West only if they stay undeveloped. As Biden said Friday, Cantwell’s “hard, consistent, unrelenting work” helped pull these treasures back from a brink they should never have faced.
Biden should do more to insulate Bears Ears particularly from future threats. His administration should take up a request by preservation advocates to grant Native tribes true comanagement authority over Bears Ears, which has frequently been plagued by artifact theft. Five recognized Native tribes consider this land not just beautiful, but hallowed ground. This connection must be better respected.
The federal Antiquities Act of 1906 is overdue a clarification that its power for a president to designate a monument cannot be reversed by a later president acting alone. That can come from courts — as Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have joined others to request — or by a Congressional tweak of the existing law to clarify that this preservation power is not a two-way street.
Congress should also consider designating these monuments as national parks, which would give them a status no president could roll back. Precedent for such a move exists in our backyard. Olympic National Park was originally protected as a national monument in 1908 by President Teddy Roosevelt, then reduced drastically by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 to allow wartime logging. Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt re-enlarged the protected area and designated it a national park in 1938.
National monuments deserve better treatment than riding on a political pendulum. If Congress isn’t ready to name the three monuments Biden rescued as national parks yet, it should clarify the Antiquities Act to strengthen the national monument designation.