Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Judge tosses out Utah’s challenge to Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante restorations

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.

UPDATE, Aug 15. 2203 @ 9:35 a.m.: The state of Utah wants to appeal the judge's ruling to the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Attorney General Sean Reyes filed a notice to appeal on Monday, Aug. 14. Our original story continues below.

A judge Friday dismissed a lawsuit from the state of Utah challenging President Joe Biden's restoration of two sprawling national monuments in the state that were downsized by President Donald Trump.

U.S. District Judge David Nuffer said Biden acted within his authority when he issued proclamations restoring Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in 2021. The monuments are on land sacred to many Native Americans.

Nuffer said Biden could issue such proclamations creating monuments “as he sees fit” and those actions were not reviewable by the court.

The part of southeastern Utah where the two monuments are located has been at the center of some of the country’s most heated land management debates.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and the office of Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said the state would begin work immediately on an appeal. The Republican governor predicted that the issue would ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nuffer's ruling comes just three days after Biden signed a national monument designation for land around Grand Canyon National Park, a decadeslong aspiration for some tribes. Republican lawmakers and the uranium mining industry that operates in the area had opposed the designation — including lawmakers in Utah.

President Bill Clinton designated Grand Staircase a national monument in 1996 and President Barak Obama designated Bears Ears in 2016. Trump moved to shrink both in 2017, urged on by Utah Republicans who had long chafed over restrictions on how monuments can be used.

Trump's decision opened up parts of the monuments for mining, drilling and other development. Low demand and high production costs led to minimal interest from energy companies.

When Biden restored the lands in October 2021, he called Bears Ears “a place of reverence and a sacred homeland to hundreds of generations of native peoples.” A coalition of tribes, including the Hopi, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni tribes and Navajo Nation, fought to restore the monuments.

But Cox and other state officials — joined by two Republican-leaning counties — alleged in a lawsuit filed last year that Biden's action violated the century-old law that allows presidents to protect sites considered historically, geographically or culturally important.

They said the administration interpreted the 1906 Antiquities Act in an overly broad manner and disregarded its original intent: protecting particular historical or archaeological sites.

“The clear language of the law gives the president the authority only to designate monuments that are ’the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected,” Cox said Friday. “Monument designations over a million acres are clearly outside that authority and end up ignoring local concerns and damaging the very resources we want to protect."

Environmentalists who intervened in the case in support of the administration said Friday's ruling was in line with prior court decisions upholding the president's authority under the Antiquities Act.

“Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments are two of the most significant, intact, and extraordinary public landscapes in America — landscapes that will remain protected after today’s dismissal of these lawsuits," said Steve Bloch with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Democratic presidents have long argued that designating large swaths of land is needed to protect certain areas. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante encompass more than 3.2 million acres (1.3 million hectares) — an area nearly the size of Connecticut.

Trump’s 2017 order slashed Grand Staircase nearly in half and reduced the size of Bears Ears by 85%.

This story was written by Matthew Brown of the Associated Press

Corrected: August 15, 2023 at 9:37 AM MDT
This story has been updated to correct the characterization of Utah's filed notice of appeal.
Founded in 1846 in New York City, The Associated Press is a not-for-profit news agency.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.