To see how far back the issue of public lands has divided Utahns, look no further than the guest list for President Trump’s signing ceremony at the state capitol on Monday.
Among the recipients of the 600 or so tightly distributed tickets were people like Mike Leavitt, who was Utah’s Republican governor when former Democratic President Bill Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996 — a process Leavitt called flawed.
“I lived through the Grand Staircase,” he said. “And that was done in secret and done in a way that should not have made those who did it proud.”
Now President Donald Trump jumps headfirst into the debate over American land conservation after ordering drastic reductions to the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monument. His visit was the culmination of a Herculean effort by many of Utah’s elected officials.
Leavitt welcomed the reversal of Grand Staircase, which will be reduced to half its original size and broken into three smaller areas.
Likewise, Bears Ears National Monument, created late last year, will be cut to 85 percent of its original size.
But Leavitt acknowledges the decision could set off a seemingly never-ending tit for tat between Republican and Democratic administrations.
“That would be a bad outcome," he said. "On the other hand, we ought not to be in a position where an undemocratic process is used to have a large effect on vast areas of land.”
Although the controversy over Grand Staircase never completely faded, it wasn’t until the designation of the Bears Ears National Monument last December that the debate resurfaced.
With the election of Trump and selection of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, monument critics found another opportunity.
Beginning with a resolution passed by both chambers of the Utah Legislature last winter and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah officials, both privately and publicly, lobbied for months to persuade Trump to rescind or reduce the monuments.
“Thanks to the work and patriots… those that fought to see Trump elected to president of the United States, we had a climate and we had an opportunity to make our voice heard," said House Speaker Greg Hughes in remarks at the capitol.
By April of this year, their efforts appeared to work. Trump signed an executive order to review all monuments larger than 100,000 acres and Secretary Zinke set off on a fact-finding mission in southern Utah in May.
Like others in rural Utah, San Juan County commissioner Bruce Adams believe monuments like Bears Ears stifle economic growth and overly restrict land use. He’d like to see Congress go a step further than Trump.
"We need to have our Congressmen do whatever they can to reform the Antiquities Act for San Juan County and the state of Utah," he said.
Trump’s actions are likely to set off a lengthy legal battle. The five Native tribes who pushed to create Bear Ears said they would waste no time in challenging the orders.
— Julia Ritchey (@juliaritchey) December 5, 2017
“What we saw today I think is just a tremendous affront to tribal sovereignty, and to these five nations who worked so hard to protect these lands," said Ethel Branch, Attorney General of the Navajo Nation.
She said the whole point of the monument was to preserve the land.
"That ensures that we can pass on traditions to the next generation and ensure we will remain who we are as Native people," Branch said.
She said monument status not only gives them access to the land, but protects its historical and cultural legacy for the Navajo Nation.
Legacies are also important to presidents. While many Republican and Democratic administrations have used monument designations to bolster their environmental record, Trump may be willing to buck that trend, too.