SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s top state and federal leaders delivered a message for President Joe Biden: Please work with the state before you return Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante to their original boundaries.
In a letter to the White House dated Wednesday, Utah’s highest-ranking leaders wrote they were “disappointed” that the state wasn’t looped into the president’s decision to review the boundaries of the two monuments, which shrank following a decision by President Donald Trump in 2017. Biden issued an executive order quickly into his presidency that seeks to review changes to the boundaries.
Utah leaders wrote they “hope for closer collaboration” between the state and the Biden administration on “matters that directly impact Utah and our residents.” The letter sent by the state was signed by Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Attorney General Sean Reyes, Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson, as well as Utah’s two senators and four representatives in Washington.
The review of the boundaries puts the land in southern Utah once again in question in what has been a mostly partisan debate over the past 25 years.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument near Kanab was first designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996. President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County 20 years later. Both presidents represented the Democratic Party, the same as Biden.
Trump, a Republican, issued a proclamation that shrank the sizes of both monuments. Grand Staircase-Escalante was nearly cut in half, while Bears Ears was slashed by 85% of its original size. All 11 signers of the letter sent to Biden on Wednesday are also Republicans.
The group requested for Utah elected officials, tribal governments, members of communities close to both monuments, and “other impacted stakeholders” to have a seat at the table during the review process. They added all angles of how the land could be used should be reviewed, from preserving cultural sites to mining.
They also asked the Biden administration to “offer support and sufficient time” to negotiate what could result in a permanent solution regarding the monuments.
“We recognize that presidents do have the authority to create or modify the boundaries of national monuments, even when there is not local consensus or support,” the letter states. “A decision to expand both monuments back to their original size or larger would satisfy some, but would represent a missed opportunity to build bridges and create long term certainty.”
The group added that it didn’t believe any of the previous decisions by Clinton, Obama or Trump accomplished what they said should be the “most important goals” for both the Biden administration and Utah. Those are to protect sensitive areas and Native American cultural sites and provide “long term certainty and predictability” regarding the future protection of both areas.
Unilateral monument decisions — whether creating, expanding, or contracting — have a long history of generating resentment and bitterness nationally and among communities in Utah.
–Letter from Utah state and federal leaders to President Joe Biden
“We believe all options should be on the table to find a long-lasting comprehensive solution,” the letter continues. “This could include solutions to better manage the land for a wide variety of stakeholders, including increased tribal involvement in management decisions, local museums or interpretive sites, clarifying allowable uses (including where mineral development is, or is not, appropriate), ending of the ‘ping ponging’ of the size of the monument, and more. These are all topics that should be on the table but can’t be accomplished by the Antiquities Act alone.”
The group asserted that a restoration of the national monuments’ original boundaries without local and state input likely wouldn’t sit well with everyone, just like previous decisions.
“Unilateral monument decisions — whether creating, expanding, or contracting — have a long history of generating resentment and bitterness nationally and among communities in Utah,” the group wrote.
Biden’s order called for the U.S. secretary of the interior to submit a report to the White House regarding the changes to the monuments within 60 days of the order, which would be sometime around mid- to late March. The letter this week likely isn’t the last of moves by Utah asking for state input during the review process.
HCR12 is a resolution that “encourages (Biden) to work cooperatively with the state’s congressional delegation, the state’s legislative and executive branches, local elected officials, and tribes on action” tied to both national monuments. It passed the Utah House last week with a 62-9 vote and was sent to the Legislature’s Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Wednesday.
There is one other bill tied to Bears Ears National Monument this year, although less tied to its boundaries. HB341 seeks to create an advisory committee that would look into the possibility of adding a visitors center outside of Bears Ears National Monument. That bill was sent to the House Rules Committee last week.