Written by Rachel Fitch
Right before he left office, President Barack Obama set aside 1.3 million acres of land as the Bear Ears National Monument in Utah. This was a contentious move, partially because he used the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allowed him to circumvent congressional approval. The controversy also hits upon a historic issue of states wanting more control over public lands.
In 1872, President Teddy Roosevelt started the trend of setting aside land for recreation and conservation by establishing Yellowstone National Park. The acreage has vastly expanded, and today the federal government owns about 640 million acres between the four sectors of the government: The Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Services, National Park Service, and the Forest Service. The U.S. has 58 national parks and 153 national monuments. National parks are protected for their scenic, inspirational, educational or recreational value. National monuments protect wilderness areas as well as fossil sites, military forts, ruins, and historical buildings. Obama used his executive power 29 times to expand or establish national monuments during his time in office.
Bear Ears is the most recent addition to the national monuments, though it is more controversial than others because it is in the conservative state of Utah, which is looking for more access to federal lands. People who oppose the act are angry at Obama’s use of executive power, and because the establishment of another monument means that state cannot create or further any new developments like oil and gas drilling or expanding cattle graze lands.
Republican representatives like Rob Bishop reject what they see as an overstep of power, especially in a state like Utah in which around 66 percent of the land is already federally owned. Many lawmakers want to reduce federal control because they believe that states would do a better job of managing the land. States have been calling for the power to manage their own public land, and instead, Bear Ears was established, putting even more land under federal control. Opposition is calling for President Trump to end Bear Ears’ monument status and give control of public lands over to the states. Supporters of the act, like environmental conservationists and Native American tribes around the area, will fight to prevent the reversal, as they have been fighting for years for the designation. Despite the controversy, Bear Ears will probably remain standing since only 11 national monuments have been repealed by Congress throughout history. The idea of public land is a way for all citizens to enjoy extraordinary areas. Though the question remains, who is fit to manage land meant for everyone?