SALT LAKE CITY — A year ago this week, President Donald Trump with great fanfare and the state's top Republicans standing behind him, signed an order downsizing two Utah national monuments.
Cheers reverberated throughout the Capitol rotunda as Trump significantly reduced the sizes of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Outside, conservationists and Native American jeered and vowed to stop the controversial move.
Now a year later, court battles are being waged, legislation is stalling out and federal land managers are making new plans for the smaller monuments, leaving the future of the picturesque southern Utah landscapes in flux.
"It was a glorious day for us," said Garfield County Commission Chairman Leland Pollock, whose county includes Grand Staircase-Escalante.
"Nothing has changed other than it's much better."
Nicole Croft, executive director of Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, a conservation group based in Kanab, doesn't see it that way.
"In terms of the communities, I think the overriding sense is why on earth has this come up again," Croft said.
"I'm hearing that from ranchers to conservationists like myself," she said. "Why is this really happening? We've been through this before. This has been settled and all of this bad blood, this community tension has been ripped open for seemingly no benefit."
State GOP leaders long decried President Bill Clinton's creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996 and more recently President Barack Obama's designation of Bear Ears in 2016 as an abuse of the Antiquities Act. In both instances, they have sought ways to roll back the presidents' actions.
Trump's undoing of the monuments, though, set off a growing season of uncertainty.
Within days of the announcement, environmental groups, including Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, and Native American tribes sued Trump in federal court in Washington, D.C., contending the president lacks the authority under the law to shrink national monuments.
Of the five lawsuits — three over Bears Ears and two over Grand Staircase-Escalante — two remain after U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan consolidated the cases into one for each monument.
Chutkan is considering government motions to dismiss the cases and the plaintiffs' opposition to those efforts. She earlier rejected the government's argument that cases should be moved to Utah because it's where the monuments are located. She also ordered the government to notify the plaintiffs of any hard-rock mining proposals or land-disturbing projects within the boundaries of the original monuments.
"We wouldn't have brought this and been ready to bring it and be so aggressive about it if we weren't confident that we were right about the law," said Natalie Landreth, an Native American Rights Fund attorney who represents the Hopi, Zuni and Ute Mountain Ute tribes in their lawsuit against Trump.
"We weren't reactive, we knew this was coming and we strongly feel like the government is really wrong in this situation," she said.
Pollock said the Trump administration has done a good job. If one president has the authority to designate a monument, another has the authority to change it, he said.
"I think that case will win out," Pollock said.
The judge has not issued any injunctions in either of the cases to halt the president's directive.
Trump cut Grand Staircase-Escalante from 1.8 million acres to about 1 million acres and broke it into three separate areas. He slashed and split the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears into Shash Jaa and Indian Creek national monuments, totaling 201,876 acres.
"I feel like in general there's a lot of confusion about where you can and can't visit and what you can and can't do," said Stephen Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney.
Croft said her group has found vandalism and signs of illegal off-roading in areas of Grand Staircase-Escalante that Trump removed from and left within the monument boundaries.
"For some people, they thought that the Trump proclamation was immediate carte blanche and you could do anything anywhere," she said.
Pollock disputes that.
"None of that is happening," Pollock said, adding that the Bureau of Land Management asked the county sheriff to police the area. "People respect the sheriff, believe me. If a deputy tells you you're in the wrong, you know you're going to go to the Garfield County Jail."
But what is happening, he said, are land and wildlife recovery projects that weren't possible before Trump stepped in. Pollock said the president didn't redraw the monument boundaries, so much as he reassigned management of the land from one BLM office to another, and they're working well together.
The BLM and U.S. Forest Service released draft monument management plans for the new designations in August. The BLM's "preferred" alternative in the Grand Staircase area is the least restrictive to energy and mining development. A public comment period ended last month with some 500,000 submissions.
"The passion and the love for our national monuments was totally underestimated," Croft said.
Croft called the BLM's preferred plan a "shocking departure" from conservation management and wonders why the agency took only nine months on the draft when the current plan was developed over four years.
"These plans are terrifying, to be honest," she said.
Pollock said everyone knows there will never be mining inside or outside the monument because of all the environmental restrictions and lawsuits that would tie up claims for years.
In southeastern Utah where Bears Ears is located, San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said "nothing" has transpired since Trump's proclamation.
Particularly, he said the promised advisory committee on land management plans hasn't materialized even though the county has submitted names to the government.
"That hasn't happened," he said.
The BLM and the Forest Service are reviewing the comments as they write proposed monument management plans and final environmental impact statements, anticipated to be made public next year.
"The rubber is going to hit the road when those plans are finalized and what types of changes they purport to make to the lands and resources that were originally part of the Grand Staircase and Bears Ears monuments," Bloch said. "That's when things will get much more interesting."
SUWA, he said, will do whatever necessary to stop coal mining or oil and gas extraction in the monument areas.
In July, a Canadian company announced an intent to extract copper, cobalt and other minerals from a defunct mine inside the former Grand Staircase-Escalante boundaries. Other hard-rock mining claims have been made in Grand Staircase and Bears Ears.
Shortly after Trump's announcement, members of Utah congressional delegation introduced bills to put into law the monument redesignations.22 comments on this story
GOP Rep. John Curtis' legislation would create the Shash Jaa and Indian Creek national monuments. It would maintain the prohibition on mineral extraction on 1.35 million acres to protect antiquities and sensitive tribal areas, allow traditional tribal activities and ceremonies and establish councils for tribal and local input on management plans.
Republican Rep. Chris Stewart's bill would create a new national park in part of Grand Staircase-Escalante. A management council comprised of local officials would draft and oversee a management plan for the monument and new park. The bill also transfers the Hole in the Rock road to the state.
Congress passed neither measure and both are dead, though the congressmen can bring them back next year.