President Donald Trump is scheduled to visit Utah on Monday to announce major reductions in the size of both the Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments, which were proclaimed by two previous presidents.
According to the Washington Post, he is expected to reduce Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by half.
While it’s true that neither of these monuments, in their original forms, followed the intent of the Antiquities Act, which grants presidents the right to proclaim monuments “confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects,” its use was historically consistent with past efforts to preserve important lands.
The problem, however, is this won’t be the final word, and the instability wrought by both Republicans and Democrats in the back-and-forth of preserving public lands leads to a lack of confidence in what the future holds. Can local economies move forward without fear of change, including in efforts to boost tourism, environmental causes or support for responsible energy extraction?
The president’s anticipated announcement likely will be challenged in court. To date, no one has tested the limits of a president’s ability to modify monuments already in place. The outcome of this litigation could lead to one of two results. Either presidents would be given broad powers to change monuments, which likely would mean further changes to these Utah landmarks when future presidents assume office, or the monuments presidents create would be made permanent unless modified by Congress.
Frankly, neither result would be desirable for Utah.
Utah is a special place and deserves special considerations. Nearly two-thirds of Utah is owned by the federal government, a figure larger than all but one state: Nevada. That makes Utah, a politically weak state, particularly vulnerable to future monument designations that fail to adequately consider the needs of all interests, including preservation advocates, tribal concerns, energy extraction, recreation and local economic development.
Perhaps the best move, rarely considered, would be for Congress to make Utah exempt from the Antiquities Act, just as it previously has passed exemptions for Wyoming and Alaska, where Congress must approve any designation larger than 5,000 acres.
When presidents designate monuments, locals get caught in a web that ignores their interests. In addition, the mere existence of the Antiquities Act makes local compromises over land preservation less likely. People have little motivation to negotiate when a president holds the power to give them all they want with a stroke of a pen.
In the case of Bears Ears, Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz tried to broker a compromise known as the Public Lands Initiative, but they failed to get all sides to agree. Environmentalists blamed the congressmen for giving county leaders in the area too much power to veto the plan, and Chaffetz, who no longer is in Congress, accused environmentalists of not cooperating. Furthermore, Utah’s representatives delayed the Public Lands Initiative month after month, leaving President Obama, from his perspective, no choice but to take action before he left office. He declared a 1.3 million acre monument last December.
Several years ago, former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett brokered a massive public lands bill compromise in the St. George area that still is seen as the gold standard for resolving contentious land issues. Bennett’s leadership obviously played a big role, but such efforts would succeed more often if a presidential proclamation weren't possible.
Nearly all sides involved in the Bears Ears controversy acknowledge the need to preserve sacred Native American land and give tribes management over those areas. Differences lie in the size of that preservation. The land in question was in public ownership before Obama made it a monument, and it would remain public land no matter what Trump declares while in Utah. Only the potential uses would change.
But whether Obama or Trump has the final say over these monuments, their opinions are not as important as those of the people directly affected, who ought to be brokering final settlements. They will feel empowered only when Utah becomes exempt from the Antiquities Act.