Speaking outside of the Utah State Capitol on Monday, President Donald Trump announced the largest-ever reduction of a national monument in the nation’s history, shrinking Bears Ears National Monument by some 1.1 million acres, or nearly 85 percent.
“I know all of you feel blessed to be living among some of the most glorious natural wonders anywhere in the world,” Trump said. “Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington. Guess what? They are wrong. The families and communities of Utah know and love this land the best, and you know the best how to take care of your land. You know how to protect it, and you know how best to conserve this land for many many generations to come.”
Trump also announced that he would be reducing Grand Staircase-Escalante, another national monument in Utah, to nearly half its original size. He called the move “a very historic action” and criticized previous administrations for abusing the Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to designate areas of federal land as national monuments in order to protect natural, cultural, or scientific features. In total, Trump’s actions on Tuesday will result in the loss of some 2 million acres of national monuments designation.
“Our precious natural treasures must be protected, and they, from now on, will be protected,” Trump said. “Under my administration we will advance that protection through a truly representative process, one that listens to the local communities that know the land the best and cherishes [sic] the land the most.”
The two reductions come after a Department of Interior review, initiated in April, which looked at all national monuments created since 1996. Trump, at the time, said that the review would put an end to “egregious abuse of federal power” that has resulted in a “massive federal land grab.” During the signing ceremony, Trump singled out Bears Ears National Monument as an example of the federal government using its authority to undermine local control over public lands, saying that the monument was designated “over the profound objections of the citizens of Utah.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said that the purpose of the review was to ensure that all stakeholders had a chance to participate in the creation of a national monument. But the review was dogged by accusations of industry-favoritism and a lack of transparency, leading one Nevada representative to describe the process as a “sham” in an interview with ThinkProgress.
In August, Zinke released his recommendations following the review, which suggested that the administration should reduce or change the boundaries of six national monuments, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996. Bears Ears was designated by President Barack Obama in December of 2016, as one of his final major designations as president. Environmentalists and indigenous groups have fought for years to protect Bears Ears, arguing that the area holds numerous sites of historical, cultural, and ecological significance.
But Bears Ears is also rich in uranium, and home to the nation’s last operating uranium mill. In his final designation, President Obama chose to leave much of the area’s uranium deposits outside of the monument’s boundaries, but banned new mining operations within the monument. Still, Utah lawmakers wrote to Secretary Zinke in June, arguing that the national monument could hinder the mill’s business and “permanently” eliminate the state’s uranium mining industry.
On Monday, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) thanked Trump for “giving a voice to the people of Utah who for too long have been overlooked in the debate about public lands.” Polling shows that Utah residents are almost evenly split on the issue, though Bears Ears tends to be more controversial than Grand Staircase-Escalate. An October poll commissioned by commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics found that 51 percent of Utahans polled in October favored shrinking Bears Ears, but 53 percent opposed breaking up Grand Staircase-Escalante.
During the public comment period for the Interior’s monuments review elicited more than 2.5 million responses, of which 98 percent were supportive of maintaining or expanding current protections for national monuments, according to a Center for Western Priorities analysis. Before Trump’s announcement on Monday, thousands of protesters gathered in Salt Lake City to oppose reducing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
Trump’s decision was immediately met with harsh criticism from environmental and conservation groups, which painted the move as an assault on necessary protections for America’s most sensitive lands.
“The gutting of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is a violent act, an assault on America’s public lands,” Terry Tempest Williams, a Center for Biological Diversity board member and Utah native, said in a press statement. “With Senator Orrin Hatch by his side, Trump’s is an act of conscious aggression waged against the health and protection of our communities, both human and wild. In a word: criminal.”
The decision will now head to the courts, which will have to decide whether the Antiquities Act gives the president authority to reduce — as well as designate — national monuments. The Navajo Nation has already said that it will challenge Trump’s directive, as have a handful of Democratic attorneys general. Presidents have, in the past, reduced the size of national monuments, though those changes have never been challenged in court.
“President Trump’s attempt to dismember two of America’s most remarkable National Monuments is a blatant attack on the integrity of one of our nation’s oldest and most important conservation laws,” David J. Hayes, executive director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at NYU School of Law and former Interior deputy secretary during both the Obama and Clinton administrations, said in a press statement. “Progressive state attorneys general are on record: the President does not have the authority under the Antiquities Act to override previous Presidents’ decisions to protect special public lands for the benefit of future generations through national monument designations. Only the Congress can do that.”