(CN) – In a signing ceremony at the Utah statehouse on Monday, President Donald Trump ordered the drastic reduction of two Utah national monuments, Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
Trump’s executive order shrinks Bears Ears by more than 1.1 million acres, going from 2,000 square miles to just 315 square miles. The size of Grand Staircase-Escalante monument will be nearly halved, from 1.9 million acres to just over 1 million acres.
The cuts will be the largest public lands reduction in the history of the United States government. The Navajo Nation, which partially manages Bears Ears, has already announced plans to oppose the move in court.
While Trump announced the reduction Monday during a speech in Utah, rumors circulated about the decision in late October.
“Past administrations have abused the purpose, spirit and intent of a century-old law known as the Antiquities Act. This law requires that only the smallest necessary area be set aside for special protection as national monuments,” said Trump to a crowd of Utahns who cheered at the announcement. “Unfortunately, previous administrations have ignored this standard and used the law to lock up hundreds of millions of acres of land and water under strict government control.”
The move comes two days after thousands protested the plan to cut the two monuments in Salt Lake City.
President Barack Obama created Bears Ears on Dec. 28, 2016, weeks before leaving office. While Obama established the monument to protect ecological and Native American cultural interest, it was not without controversy.
The Utah congressional delegation opposed the protection, saying it would take decision-making out of local hands and give it to the federal government.
After Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke toured Bears Ears in May 2017, Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah called for the modernization of the Antiquities Act.
“The 1906 Antiquities Act was originally intended as an executive tool to protect historical and archaeological artifacts and structures under threat,” Bishop said while introducing a bill to curb the presidential power.
The Bureau of Land Management, the United States Forest Service, and a coalition of five Native American tribes currently run Bears Ears. Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, voiced his hard opposition to the reduction in a statement on Monday.
“The decision to reduce the size of the monument is being made with no tribal consultation. The Navajo Nation will defend Bears Ears,” said Begaye. “The reduction in the size of the monument leaves us no choice but to litigate this decision.”
Documents from the Bureau of Land Management show that oil and gas companies have found large reserves of hydrocarbons beneath Bears Ears, currently off-limits for extraction. The reduction will likely modify this restriction.
Visitors know the Grand Staircase-Escalante for its plateaus and exceptional rock formations. The expanse of land also contains a plethora of fossils from several different types of dinosaurs and other species. Like Bears Ears, its establishment – by President Bill Clinton in 1996 – has been controversial.
In a statement from the White House, the Grand Staircase was cited as being the prime example of overuse of the Antiquities Act.
“Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is the poster child for Antiquities Act overreach and abuse, having been designated to assist President Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign and end the development of a coal project,” the statement said.
At the time, Clinton said he didn’t want mining companies on the land.
“While the Grand Staircase-Escalante will be open for many activities, I am concerned about a large coal mine proposed for the area,” said Clinton in a speech to announce the monument. “Mining jobs are good jobs, and mining is important to our national economy and to our national security. But we can’t have mines everywhere and we shouldn’t have mines that threaten our national treasures.”
Despite the reductions, the Trump administration says the monuments will continue to protect objects of interest. The president also claims the federal government will not be selling public lands wholesale, and the reductions are being done in the economic interest of local, rural communities.
Since Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906, the Supreme Court has heard three challenges involving it – each one resolved in the president’s favor.
The Antiquities Act has been used by presidents to protect 120 monuments.
Following Trump’s signing, demonstrators marched through fresh snow to surround the capitol building, and blocked downtown traffic prior to and following the announcement.
The crowd, an estimated 3,000, continued the protests that began on Saturday, when nearly 5,000 environmentalists took to the capitol en masse.
Leaders of the Bears Ears Commission of Tribes swiftly expressed dismay at the actions.
“The Bears Ears Commission of Tribes holds a vision of a Bears Ears National Monument that is a landscape of healing for all Americans and a symbol of Native American and community engagement in our nation’s public lands.” said James Adakai, Navajo Nation Oljato Chapter president. “Today’s actions fundamentally undermine this vision, tribal sovereignty, and the cultural heritage of all Americans.”
A coalition of five American Indian tribes – Hopi, Navajo Nation, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Indian, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe – will likely file a lawsuit challenging Trump’s order.