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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

President Biden set to restore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments to original sizes

A photo of an entrance sign at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Lexi Peery
Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments were restored to their original designated sizes after former President Donald Trump shrank them in 2017.

President Joe Biden plans to restore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments to their original sizes of 1.3 million acres and nearly 1.9 million acres respectively.

The Biden Administration hasn’t made an official announcement, but Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, along with Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Senate President Stuart Adams, House Speaker Brad Wilson and Attorney General Sean Reyes released a joint statement Thursday expressing disappointment with the expected decision.

“We learned [Thursday] afternoon from [Interior] Secretary [Deb] Haaland that President Biden will soon be announcing the restoration of both Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments,” the group said. “President Biden’s decision to expand the monuments is disappointing, though not surprising.”

The decision comes four years after former President Donald Trump shrank Bears Ears by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by about 50%. The debate over restoring the monuments has been very contentious.

“We expected and hoped for closer collaboration between our state and national leaders, especially on matters that directly impact Utah and our citizens,” the statement from Cox, Henderson and other elected officials read. “The president’s decision to enlarge the monuments again is a tragic missed opportunity — it fails to provide certainty as well as the funding for law enforcement, research and other protections which the monuments need and which only Congressional action can offer.”

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition issued a statement Thursday evening thanking Biden ahead of his official announcement. The group, which is made up of delegates from the Navajo Nation, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain Ute, Hopi and Zuni tribes, said they look forward to creating a new model of “collaborative management.”

“President Biden did the right thing restoring the Bears Ears National Monument,” said Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee and BEITC member. “For us, the Monument never went away. We will always return to these lands to manage and care for our sacred sites, waters, and medicines. The Monument represents a historic opportunity for the federal government to learn and incorporate our tribal land management practices that we developed over centuries.”

Utah’s Congressional delegation also responded with a statement of disappointment saying Biden’s decision is “a devastating blow to the ongoing efforts by our delegation, along with state, local, and tribal leaders, to find a permanent, legislative solution to resolve the longstanding dispute over the boundaries and management of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.”

“Rather than take the opportunity to build unity in a divided region and bring resources and lasting protections to sacred antiquities by seeking a mutually beneficial and permanent legislative solution, President Biden fanned the flames of controversy and ignored input from the communities closest to these monuments,” the statement read.

Utah House Democrats applauded Biden’s move and said there already have been opportunities for legislative solutions.

“The vast majority of Utahns recognize the urgent need for protecting these majestic places,” the state’s House Democratic Caucus said in a statement. “While some have urged a legislative solution over using the Antiquities Act, too many opportunities have been passed up to do the right thing. To continue to leave these cherished places vulnerable to further defacement and looters is unacceptable. The time for action has come.”

The Center for Western Priorities, which has advocated for restoration of the monuments, thanked Biden.

“You have listened to Indigenous tribes and the American people and ensured these landscapes will be protected for generations to come,” the organization said in a statement. “The cultural and paleontological resources within the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante landscapes are too important to leave at risk.”

During his run for president, Biden promised to restore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante to their original sizes. In April, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited the monuments to meet with Navajo Nation and Utah elected officials.

After the visit, Utah’s Congressional delegation, along with Cox, said they were hoping to work with Haaland and the White House on a final decision.

“As opposed to us coming to them and saying, this is how many acres we want, we’d rather say let’s work together and do the hard work to see if we can’t find some common ground, if you will, some understanding of what can be done where,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-UT, said in April, “and then what the designation is would follow.”

Later in June, the delegation sent a letter to Biden asking to meet with him before any final decision was made. A few days after that letter was sent, The Washington Post reported Haaland recommended that Biden restore full protections for the monuments.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
Ross Terrell is the managing editor at KUER.
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