Obama moves to protect nearly 2 million acres of public lands before Trump takes office

The designation of two new national monuments is just the latest in a series of actions aimed at protecting lands and waters.

Gold Butte National Monument CREDIT: U.S. Department of the Interior
Gold Butte National Monument CREDIT: U.S. Department of the Interior

The amount of protected lands in the United States expanded by nearly two million acres Wednesday as President Barack Obama designated two new national monuments: Bears Ears and Gold Butte.

“I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archaeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes,” Obama said in a statement. “Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes.”

National monuments protect landscapes for conservation and preserve areas of historic and cultural significance. These two monuments are the sites of hundreds of thousands of native American antiquities, as well vulnerable and important recreation areas and wildlife habitat.

The Gold Butte National Monument, east of Las Vegas, Nevada is a popular area for outdoor recreation and is home to abundant Native American and historic artifacts. The area was the target of a recent threat from Ryan Bundy, one of the extremists who overtook the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January and is facing federal charges for his role in the standoff at Baskerville ranch in 2014.

“After working for decades to protect Gold Butte’s breathtaking landscapes and cultural treasures, I was overjoyed to hear the news today from President Obama,” Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) said in a statement. “The splendor of Gold Butte will now be protected for all of us. It will be enjoyed for generations to come and I appreciate the persistence of the many Nevadans who fought for its protection despite the obstacles.”

CREDIT: Bureau of Land Management
CREDIT: Bureau of Land Management

The 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah is one of the most historically rich areas in the U.S., with more than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites throughout. The area has also been one of the most vulnerable places for grave robbing, looting, and other destructive activities.

Along with the designation, Obama also created the Bears Ears Commission to ensure tribal experience and opinions will be included in decision making for the management of the new monument. The area’s new monument status will allow for increased funding for staff, management, and law enforcement to better patrol the area and increase visitor awareness of the importance of the site.

Willie Grayeyes, board chairman of the Utah Dine Bikeyah, a member of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, shared his gratitude that Bears Ears would be preserved for future generations to enjoy. “I would also like to express my appreciation to President Obama for hearing our voice and listening to the grassroots people, the unity of tribal governments, and all other supporters who stood by us on this powerful path to healing,” Grayeyes said in a statement.

“Mormon history, the Constitution and laws, and white man’s history are written on paper,” Octavius Seowtewa, Zuni Cultural Resources Advisory Committee Chairman and Zuni Medicine Society leader, said. “Our history — the Native history — is written in stone on canyon walls. We celebrate knowing our history at Bears Ears will be protected for future generations, forever.”

“Our history — the Native history — is written in stone on canyon walls.”

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), whose Public Land Initiative bill did not win the support of the tribal coalition, has been a vocal critic of a Bears Ears national monument. Bishop has also met twice with President-elect Donald Trump’s transition staff to discuss “de-designating” national monuments and repealing or limiting the Antiquities Act, the law allowing presidents to create national monuments.

Overturning the national monuments of a previous president is something that has never been done and legal experts say the president doesn’t have the authority to do. While Congress does have the power to revoke a national monument, such a move would be widely unpopular and Bishop does not have enough allies in Congress to get it done.

Some of Bishop’s fellow Utah Republicans were outraged by Wednesday’s announcement, including Rep. Jason Chaffetz who said the president’s “midnight proclamation” disregarded the “comprehensive bipartisan solution” he and others had been working on. Attorney General Sean Reyes said his office is planning a lawsuit over the monument, calling it “extremely disappointing that President Obama has declared another national monument here in Utah, ignoring the voices of so many in our state, particularly those closest to the designated space.”

The sites for both monuments feature long lists of public endorsements from elected officials, tribal nationals, businesses, and community groups. Seventy-one percent of Nevada voters support the Gold Butte national monument and 71 percent of Utah voters support the Bears Ears national monument.

The designation of the two new national monuments Wednesday is just the latest in several recent steps taken by the Obama administration to protect significant areas of land and water before leaving office. (Trump, for his part, has vowed to open up vast swaths of the country, on and offshore, for drilling.)

In late November, the Department of the Interior announced the protection of 30,000 acres near Yellowstone National Park from new mining claims. The Bureau of Land Management’s Moab Master Leasing Plan, released in December, steered energy development away from sensitive public lands. Steps were taken to protect the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Then in late December, the administration announced that 115 million acres of the Arctic Ocean and 3.8 million acres of the Atlantic Ocean would be permanently protected from oil and gas drilling.