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Conservation groups respond to Utah lawsuit challenging national monuments restoration

August 24, 2022
Chris Krupp, WildEarth Guardians, (206) 417-6363, ckrupp@wildearthguardians.org
In This Release
Public Lands  
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH—The state of Utah has filed suit against the federal government, challenging President Biden’s restoration of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. These monuments were gutted—without lawful authority—by former President Trump, who cut the boundaries of Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 45 percent.

Earthjustice, representing a coalition of conservation groups and in partnership with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Natural Resources Defense Council, will move to intervene in the Utah suit to defend the monuments.

These groups, together with Native American tribes who urged the Obama administration to establish the Bears Ears National Monument, also challenged President Trump’s 2017 dismantling of the monuments. That case remains pending in the District of Columbia.

“Utah’s lawsuit goes far beyond Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante,” said Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office. “It is an attack on a bedrock law—the Antiquities Act—and the way both Republican and Democratic presidents have relied on it for more than a century to protect some of America’s most beloved places. Utah’s argument that the president may only designate small monuments centered on specific sites is just wrong.  In 1920, the Supreme Court upheld President Teddy Roosevelt’s use of the Antiquities Act to protect 800,000 acres in Arizona when he declared the Grand Canyon a national monument. In the hundred years since, presidents have since routinely designated monuments of a million acres or more — like the Death Valley, Glacier Bay, Gates of the Arctic and the Wrangell St-Elias national monuments — many of which became beloved national parks.  We intend to defend the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments and this sweeping attack on the Antiquities Act itself.”

“Utah counties already lost their challenge to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 2004,” said Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project. “Now local and state governments are playing ‘sore loser’ and plying these same shopworn arguments again to try to block the conservation of these national treasures in Grand Staircase, and in Bears Ears too. Is there no end to the lengths that these anti-environmental entities will go to avoid sound stewardship of the land?”

“Most Utahns support the Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase-Escalante monument designations and want these places protected,” said Chris Krupp of WildEarth Guardians. “This lawsuit is political theater, meant to appeal to the rabid minority that believes it’s their birthright to exploit the public lands we all hold in common.”

Background: President Obama designated the Bears Ears National Monument after years of advocacy from a historic partnership between the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni governments, along with archaeological, conservation, and recreation voices.

Spanning over a million acres, Bears Ears is home to ancient cliff dwellings, Native American cultural sites, and iconic wildlife such as bears, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions.

The monument houses over 100,000 Native American archaeological and cultural sites, with some dating back to 12,000 B.C.E. Tribes continue to visit these lands to hold ceremonies and to connect with their ancestors.

The monument designation included a historic plan for co-management of this unique landscape by federal agencies and the five tribes with sacred cultural interests in the lands. Former President Trump’s move would have unraveled protections for this unique area, leaving it vulnerable to oil and uranium interests and looters who rob sacred sites.

By restoring protections to Bears Ears, the Biden administration ensured the preservation of thousands of years of Tribal history and sacred sites.

Restoring protections to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument will also have an enormous impact. Home to dinosaur fossils found nowhere else in the world, it is often described as a “Dinosaur Shangri-la.” It was established as a national monument in 1996. In the two decades since the area was protected, paleontologists have unearthed fossils from 21 previously undiscovered dinosaur species. (See photos and maps.)

In addition, the local economy has boomed as travel and tourism expanded local businesses, leading to increased population, jobs and income.

Earthjustice sued to protect Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, representing nine organizations (Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, National Parks Conservation Association, Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, Grand Canyon Trust, Defenders of Wildlife, and Western Watersheds Project), and was co-counsel with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA).

Bears Ears National Monument. Photo by Bob Wick/BLM.

Other Contact
Perry Wheeler, Earthjustice, 202-792-6211, pwheeler@earthjustice.org; Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project, 307-399-7910, emolvar@westernwatersheds.org