SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — President Joe Biden will expand two sprawling national monuments in Utah, the governor said Thursday.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox released a statement expressing disappointment in a decision by the administration to expand Bears Ears National Monuments and Grand Staircase-Escalante, which were downsized significantly under President Donald Trump.
“The president’s decision to enlarge the monuments again is a tragic missed opportunity — it fails to provide certainty as well as the funding for law enforcement, research, and other protections which the monuments need and which only Congressional action can offer,” he said in a statement released with other state leaders It did not include specifics on the plan.
The White House and the U.S. Department of the Interior declined immediate comment Thursday.
Cox said he had offered to work with the administration on a legislative solution.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous Cabinet secretary, traveled to Utah in April to visit the monuments, becoming the latest federal official to step into what has been a yearslong public lands tug-of-war.
In 2017, Bears Ears National Monument on lands considered sacred to Native Americans was downsized by 85%, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was cut by nearly half.
The cuts were decried by environmental and tribal groups who sued to reverse them, while conservative state leaders considered the size of both monuments U.S. government overreach and applauded the move.
Former President Barack Obama proclaimed Bears Ears a national monument in 2016. The site was the first to receive the designation at the specific request of tribes.
The area includes thousands of archaeological sites on red rock lands including cliff dwellings.
The Bears Ears buttes, which overlook a grassy valley, are considered a place of worship for many tribes, according to Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. The group incudes the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe.
The Trump administration’s reductions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante paved the way for potential coal mining and oil and gas drilling on lands that were previously off-limits. However, activity was limited because of market forces.
Environmental, tribal, paleontological and outdoor recreation organizations sued to restore their original boundaries, arguing presidents lack legal authority to change monuments their predecessors created. Meanwhile, Republicans argued Democratic presidents have misused the Antiquities Act signed by President Theodore Roosevelt to designate monuments beyond what’s necessary to protect archaeological and cultural resources.
The administration has said the decision to review the monuments was part of an expansive plan to tackle climate change and reverse the Trump administration’s “harmful” policies.
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney criticized Biden by saying in a tweet Thursday that he “squandered the opportunity to build consensus” and find a permanent solution for the monuments.
“Yet again, Utah’s national monuments are being used as a political football between administrations,” Romney said. “The decision to re-expand the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is a devastating blow to our state, local and tribal leaders and our delegation.”
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