SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge in Washington, D.C., has declined to move to Utah a pair of lawsuits fighting sharp reductions of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan rejected a request from attorneys at the U.S. Department of Justice, who have argued that the cases affect Utahns more than anyone else and should be transferred to Salt Lake City.
Several Native American tribes and environmental groups sued after President Donald Trump announced the downsizing from the Utah state Capitol last year, arguing the president doesn't have the authority to rescind previous presidents' designations.
"This case is of national significance," said Gavin Noyes, executive director for the nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah, one of the groups that crafted the monument proposal and who sued. "I think it's appropriate that it's heard in D.C."
Now that the venue is decided, the Utah Attorney General's Office will move to intervene on the state's behalf, said Utah Solicitor General Tyler Green.
"We hoped that a public lands decision of this magnitude might be made closer to home," Green said in a statement. "Local decisions tend to be better decisions, because those involved have a better understanding of the people and landscapes in question. But we still expect justice to be done."
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which is among the plaintiffs, cheered the Monday order.
"With this venue issue behind us we look forward to tackling the merits of President Trump's unlawful decisions to dismantle Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments," said Stephen Bloch, the alliance's legal director. Attorneys for the plaintiffs opposed a possible transfer of the cases to Utah, in part because the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City has a more crowded schedule.
The Justice Department, which is defending Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and others named in the suit, has previously said Republican and Democratic presidents have reduced monuments at least 18 times.
Court documents do not spell out the judge's reasoning for the Monday decision, which also ordered the federal government to give two days' notice before any ground disturbance — possibly excavating, using explosives or other mining activities — within the original Bears Ears boundaries. Multiple suits seeking to overturn the monument reductions have been consolidated into two cases before her.
Trump in December announced sharp reductions to the monuments, splitting the nearly 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument into two smaller ares: the Indian Creek unit at 86,447 acres and Shash Jaa at roughly 142,300 acres.
The president also downsized the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument designated in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton. That monument would be broken up into three smaller chunks: Grand Staircase, at about 211,900 acres; Kaiparowits, 551,100 acres; and Escalante Canyons, 243,200 acres.
Trump said previous administrations had abused powers granted in the 1906 Antiquities Act, which stipulates that designations should be made with the smallest area compatible with protection. The trimming came at the urging of Utah's congressional delegation and rural county commissioners who said the federal designations could threaten local economies.
San Juan County, which surrounds Bears Ears, sought to intervene in the case as a defendant. County commissioner Phil Lyman said Monday that the possibility of the court reversing Trump's order is a concern to him, but he believes it's unlikely.15 comments on this story
"I don't think it necessarily bodes poorly," Lyman said of the judge's Monday order. "I think it could easily have a fair hearing out in D.C."
Utah Rep. John Curtis earlier this year proposed legislation to create a management plan for the monuments that would give tribes a role, but critics argued it would roll back protections and the bill stalled. The Republican congressman was meeting with Zinke and other members of Utah's delegation at Zion National Park on Monday and wasn't immediately available to respond, a spokeswoman said.