Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments downsized

Tribes, conservation groups file lawsuit challenging President's decision

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is home to rare and unique dinosaur fossils.

Photo/Bureau of Land Management

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is home to rare and unique dinosaur fossils.

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Under Trump’s proclamation, Bears Ears National Monument will be reduced about 85 percent.

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Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is divided into three units. Opponents of the move say areas rich in dinosaur fossils are now unprotected.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — On Dec. 4, the Navajo Nation joined the Hopi Tribe, Zuni Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe and filed a legal challenge against the Trump administration for its actions revoking and replacing the Bears Ears National Monument.

On Dec. 7, nine conservation organizations, represented by EarthJustice, joined the tribes, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Trust, National Parks Conservation Association and Sierra Club.

The broad coalition of conservation and historic preservation organizations, outdoor industry, scientists, and outdoor recreationists, which are suing the Trump administration to strike down what they call President Donald Trump’s overreach of authority in revoking the Bears Ears National Monument. 

The five tribes formed a coalition that worked to have the monument designated in 2016. President Barack Obama’s decision to designate the monument came after years of extensive outreach and coordination with the five tribes, they said. The proclamation by Obama established the Bears Ears Commission to guide and provide recommendations on management of the landscape and, for the first time, traditional knowledge was honored as a resource to be protected.

Bears Ears has been home to Hopi, Navajo, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni people for countless generations. The national monument took more than 80 years to designate. The original proclamation by Obama acknowledges a cultural landscape rich in antiquities, with hundreds of thousands of archaeological and cultural sites sacred to dozens of tribes.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition said Trump’s proposal to shrink the Bears Ears National Monument leaves tens of thousands of sacred sites vulnerable to looting and grave robbing — the very threats the Antiquities Act was designed to protect against — as well as to fossil fuel development and uranium mining.

The lawsuit argues that Trump’s actions are a violation of the Antiquities Act and are unconstitutional. It argues that Congress has exclusive authority to make decisions regarding property belonging to the United States. Through the Antiquities Act, Congress delegated limited authority to the president to designate national monuments and retained for itself the power to revoke or modify National Monuments.

“Nearly three million Americans voiced their support for national monuments during Trump’s monument review, but he chose to ignore both the American people and the letter of the law to cater to the extractive industries who would gut our natural wonders,” said Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney in Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office. “We stand with Native American Tribes to defend Bears Ears National Monument from this outrageous attack.”

Trump’s action reduces what was an area of 1.35 million acres 85 percent. The five tribes argue that the overreach by the president should be declared unlawful and be enjoined to prevent its implementation and that Trump’s proclamation ignores overwhelming public support for the original monument designation, and dishonors Native American heritage and culture.

“By revoking Bears Ears National Monument President Trump will be remembered for coming down on the wrong side of history,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “The federal public lands and significant cultural resources within Bears Ears National Monument are world class treasures that demand the highest level of protection and respect. President Trump’s broad attack on Bears Ears — the first by any President in the 111-year history of the Antiquities Act — puts these lands and resources at immediate risk of damage and destruction and cannot stand.”

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in his recommendation that he did consult with tribes and met with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in Salt Lake City in May for just under two hours. He said that he also met with tribal representatives who represent different sides of the debate during his four-day survey of the Utah monuments in May.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye disputes whether tribes were consulted in any meaningful way.

“The Navajo Nation has made repeated requests to meet with President Trump on this issue,” Begaye said. “The Bears Ears Monument is of critical importance, not only to the Navajo Nation but to many tribes in the region.”

Alfred Lomahquahu, of the Hopi Tribe, said Trump’s action leaves tens of thousands of historical and cultural sites vulnerable.

“The monument was already greatly reduced from what the Tribes originally requested,” Lomahquahu said. “Now, without consultation and without notification, President Trump is breaking the government’s promise to work with tribes to protect the homeland of our ancestors.”

Zinke argued in his recommendations that removing the monument designation will not open up the area to looting and desecration.

“This is not true,” Zinke said. “Whether these resources are found on land designated as a monument, national forest, BLM-managed public land, or other federal land, it is generally illegal to remove or disrupt these resources without a permit issued by the federal government.”

Shaun Chapoose, of the Ute Indian Tribal Business Committee, said Bears Ears isn’t just about a few artifacts in isolated locations — it is about cultures that are still here and still thriving and Trump’s unilateral action only pleases a few powerful Utah politicians.

Earthjustice has also filed suit on behalf of the organizations challenging Trump’s decision to alter Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, too.

The Grand Staircase-Escalante area contains dinosaur fossils found nowhere else in the world.

Since its designation, 21 new dinosaur species have been unearthed by scientists in the monument, leading some to call these lands a geologic wonderland. Grand Staircase holds one of the richest collections of fossils from the Late Cretaceous Period, which gives scientists and the public an unparalleled window into the dinosaurs that lived in the area about 10 million years ago.

In mid-October, scientists airlifted one of the most complete tyrannosaur skeletons ever found out of Grand Staircase. The fossils are largely found in the Kaiparowits Plateau, which has been downsized considerably by the Trump administration.

It is also home to rich coal deposits.

“President Trump is attempting an unauthorized remodel of the Grand Staircase, knocking out not only geologic steps but cornerstones of the evolution of species, human history, and our cultural heritage as well,” said Tim Peterson, Utah Wildlands Program Director with the Grand Canyon Trust. “We’ve spent 20 years working to preserve Grand Staircase, and now we’re asking the courts to help us reconstruct what was torn down today.”

Sixteen presidents have used the Antiquities Act to designate 157 national monuments since 1906 to preserve unique and treasured places from destruction.  Trump’s proclamation is the first time any president has attempted to abolish a monument established by a previous president and amounts to the largest elimination of protected areas in American history. 

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