President Trump’s long-awaited decision Monday to pare down and carve up two highly controversial national monuments in Utah has set off an unprecedented legal fight over the scope of an executive’s power to cede control of federal lands.
During a speech in Salt Lake City, Mr. Trump said he’ll reduce both the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, which were established by former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, respectively.
The president cast his move as an effort to return control over land to local stakeholders, and to reverse a trend that saw administrations stretch the century-old Antiquities Act to its breaking point by using it as a tool to shut down huge swaths of land to energy development and recreation.
“Some people think the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington. And guess what? They’re wrong,” Mr. Trump said. “The families of communities of Utah know and love this land the best and you know best how to take care of your land.”
While past presidents on 18 occasions have reduced monuments, none have done so on the scale Mr. Trump announced Monday. The Antiquities Act gives presidents the power to create monuments, but is silent on whether they have the authority to cancel or amend them.
Courts have never ruled on presidents’ power to shrink monuments, and opponents of Mr. Trump’s move immediately took their fight to court. Some legal scholars have said the battle, ultimately, could wind up before the Supreme Court.
“The decision to reduce the size of the Monument is being made with no tribal consultation. The Navajo Nation will defend Bears Ears. The reduction in the size of the Monument leaves us no choice but to litigate this decision,” said Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, which deeply opposed any action to alter Bears Ears.
And within hours of the president’s speech, the first lawsuit had been filed — by a coalition of 10 environmentalist organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In the brief filed Monday evening with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the green groups said Mr. Trump’s order “exceeds his authority under the Antiquities Act. The Act authorizes Presidents to create national monuments; it does not authorize Presidents to abolish them either in whole or in part.”
“Grand Staircase is a cradle of biodiversity and losing even an acre would be a crime,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity, another of the litigants. “Trump and the fossil-fuel industry have picked the wrong battle.”
Under proclamations signed by Mr. Trump, the Bears Ears National Monument, created in 2016, will be cut from a single 1.35 million-acre monument to two separate sites encompassing roughly 220,000 acres.
The sprawling 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante site, established in 1996, will see its acreage cut in half. The remaining 1 million acres will be divided up into three separate monuments, said Trump officials.
At Grand Staircase, the change will allow access to a major coal mine. At Bears Ears, uranium mines are likely to be tapped.
Environmentalists say the administration’s focus on monuments amounts to a giveaway to energy companies.
“Trump’s unprecedented, illegal action is a brutal blow to our public lands, an affront to Native Americans and a disgrace to the presidency,” said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “He wants to hand over these lands to private industry to mine, frack, bulldoze and clear-cut until there’s nothing left for our children and grandchildren.”
The reductions have long been a policy goal of Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, and other lawmakers who saw the Trump administration as a golden opportunity to finally reverse egregious federal land grabs. Supporters of Mr. Trump’s actions say they’re the beginning of true reform of how national monuments are created and managed.
“These new proclamations are a first step towards protecting identified antiquities without disenfranchising the local people who work and manage these areas,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
The Clinton administration’s 1996 creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante — done with virtually no consultation with Utah officials — was the first example of a president truly stretching the Antiquities Act.
The law states that a monument designation should be limited to the “smallest area” compatible with the artifacts or other historical items to be protected. Many other monuments across the country are relatively small and were created to protect specific items or locations of historical significance, such as the Stonewall Inn in New York City, an iconic location for the LGBT rights movement. But in the case of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, hundreds of thousands of acres of wooded area were locked up, leading critics to charge that Democrats had found a legal loophole that allowed them to grab massive patches of land with impunity.