SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — President Joe Biden will expand two giant national monuments in Utah that have been at the center of a public land tug-of-war that has played out over three presidential administrations, the state’s governor said Thursday.
Spencer Cox, a Republican, issued a statement expressing disappointment at the administration’s decision to expand Bears Ears National Monuments and Grand Staircase-Escalante, which were significantly curtailed under President Donald Trump.
They cover vast expanses of southern Utah where red rocks reveal petroglyphs and cliff dwellings and the distinctive twin buttes rise from the grassy valley. The Trump administration cut Bears Ears on land considered sacred to Native American tribes by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by nearly half.
Cox’s statement did not include details on how many of the monuments Biden plans to restore, and the White House and the US Department of the Interior declined immediate comment.
Cox said he had offered to work with the administration on a legislative solution.
“The President’s decision to re-enlarge the monuments is a tragic missed opportunity – it fails to provide certainty as well as provide funding for law enforcement, research and other protections that require monuments and which Can only offer Congress action,” he said. Statement issued with other leaders of the state
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney also criticized Biden in a tweet on Thursday, saying he “missed an opportunity to build consensus” and sought a permanent solution for the monuments.
“Still, Utah’s national monuments are being used as a political football between the administrations,” Romney said. “The decision to re-extend the borders of Beers Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is a devastating blow to our state, local and tribal leaders and our delegation …
Jennifer Roccala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, praised Biden’s decision and said she expects it to be an initial step toward his goal of preserving at least 30 percent of American land and ocean by 2030.
“Thank you, President Biden,” Rocala said in a statement. “You have listened to indigenous tribes and the American people and ensured that these landscapes will be preserved for generations to come.”
Roccala said Trump’s cuts increased national attention to Bears Ears. She called on the federal government to manage the scenario and raise funds to handle the growing crowd.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous cabinet secretary, traveled to Utah to visit the monuments in April, becoming the latest federal official to step into a year-long public land battle.
Former President Barack Obama declared Bears Ears a national monument in 2016. The site was the first to receive the designation upon the specific request of the tribes.
Bears Ears Buttes, which overlook a grassy valley, is considered a place of worship for many tribes, according to Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. The group includes the Hopi tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, the Pueblo of the Zuni, and the Ute Indian tribe.
The Trump administration’s cuts in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante paved the way for potential coal mining and oil and gas drilling on lands that were previously off-limits. However, activity was limited due to market forces.
Conservative state leaders considered the size of both monuments to be greater than that of the US government and commended the cuts.
Environmental, tribal, paleontological and outdoor recreation organizations sued to restore the monuments’ original boundaries, arguing that presidents do not have the legal authority to alter the monuments erected by their predecessors. Meanwhile, Republicans argued that Democratic presidents misused the Antiquities Act signed by President Theodore Roosevelt to designate monuments needed to protect archaeological and cultural resources.
The administration has said the decision to review the monuments was part of a broader plan to tackle climate change and reverse the Trump administration’s “damaging” policies.