After years of lobbying government officials, five tribes in the region—the Navajo, the Hopi, the Ute Mountain Ute, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Zuni—succeeded in convincing the Administration to establish Bears Ears. In 2016, then-president Barack Obama established Bears Ears National Monument in Utah through the Antiquities Act in Proclamation 9558, protecting 1.35 million acres of Federal Land.
Bears Ears National Monument was the product of relentless persistence and hard work of these five tribes to retain their heritage, culture, land, and religion. So when President Trump told a crowd in Utah that he does not “think it is controversial” but rather “so sensible,” one can understand he is not addressing those groups and peoples who support the establishment of national monuments. What took years to achieve was dismantled in months by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Trump’s proclamation will reduce Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent, opening 1.1 million acres to natural gas extraction, mining, logging, and other commercial activities. It will also reduce the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by 46 percent. “It’s a historical trauma our people have been through over and over,” said Helaman Thor Hale, a Native American resident who was present at the recent Salt Lake City rally. Not only is this historically the largest rollback of federal lands in the history of the U.S., but these lands are home to over 10,000 religious and sacred sites for over 30 different tribes. These lands will be open in 60 days for oil, gas, and other commercial claims. “We will stand and fight all the way,” said Russell Begaye, President of the Navajo Nation.
The land is not only rich with culture, religion, and sacred sites, but also rich with resources—which is why Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are particularly threatened by Zinke and Trump’s downsizing campaign. Kaiparowits Plateau is home to 62 billion tons of coal in the ground, and with this rollback on federal land protection, it may be mined, combusted, and sent into the atmosphere where greenhouse gases go. “Public lands will once again be for public use,” President Trump said at Salt Lake City capitol on Dec. 4, standing under a large, colorfully painted mural depicting white pioneers settling the land. States will have control over these lands now, but that potentially means privatization and commercialization of sites that are sacred to certain tribes just as the Sistine Chapel is to Catholics.
This push toward privatization, commercialization, and development will strip many native tribes of their sacred lands in the process. Many organizations have spoken out, and eight lawsuits have been filed in the past 48 hours—including an organization of five tribes: the Hopi, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni tribes and Navajo Nation. Organizations like REI and Patagonia have also spoken out against Trump’s actions. Patagonia has created their website homepage to open with a black screen that states: “The President Stole Your Land,” calling President Trump’s actions “illegal.”
The President has entered uncharted legal territory that may result in legal consequences. There have been few land reductions of national monuments in the past, but lawsuits were never filed. Within two days of making these announcements, the administration is already facing numerous lawsuits. Many of these cases focus on the argument that the president is given the ability to establish national monuments through Section 320301 of Title 54 in the Antiquities Act—but nothing explicitly grants a president the authority to reduce national monument lands. The Navajo Nation released a statement: “Through the Antiquities Act, Congress delegated to the president the limited authority to designate national monuments and retained to itself the power to revoke or modify national monuments. The proclamation signed by President Trump today is so extreme that it revokes and replaces Bears Ears and thereby violates the Antiquities Act and seizes authority that vests solely in Congress.”
Legal action in this situation can have two consequences: one positive, one negative. If President Trumps’ administration wins in court, it could result in mass reduction of National Monument lands. Whereas, if President Trump’s administration loses, there could be room for a potential extension of the Antiquities Act. Either way, cases take time, and while cases are taken to court, the once-protected lands of Bears Ears National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments are left now unprotected.