That President Barack Obama has been considering creating a new national monument on Cedar Mesa in southern Utah has been no great secret, but fans of federal public lands were thrilled today when Obama actually went through with it and signed the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in being and also created the 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada.
“For hundreds of generations,” Obama’s Bears Ears proclamation says, “native peoples lived in the surrounding deep sandstone canyons, desert mesas, and meadow mountaintops, which constitute one of the densest and most significant cultural landscapes in the United States. Abundant rock art, ancient cliff dwellings, ceremonial sites, and countless other artifacts provide an extraordinary archaeological and cultural record that is important to us all, but most notably the land is profoundly sacred to many Native American tribes, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, Hopi Nation, and Zuni Tribe.”
The national monument will be co-managed by representatives of five tribes—a first.
“I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House. “Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes. Importantly, today I have also established a Bears Ears Commission to ensure that tribal expertise and traditional knowledge help inform the management of the Bears Ears National Monument and help us to best care for its remarkable national treasures.”
Cedar Mesa and the twin buttes of the Bears Ears have exploded in popularity in the last five years, with backpackers, hikers, and ATVers exploring its complex and fragile canyon systems. The area contains an estimated 56,000 archaeological sites and until today was the least protected culturally rich area in the States.
The move was immediately blasted by opponents, including Utah congressional delegation, which gathered at the state capital to present a united front against Bears Ears. Rep. Rob Bishop has been working for years to create what he called a “grand bargain” for the land around Bears Ears, but critics said that his plan was a giveaway to oil and gas interests that would do little to protect the area from development.
“The midnight monument is a slap in the face to the people of Utah,” said Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, “attempting to silence the voices of those who will bear the heavy burden it imposes,” he said, vowing to work with the Trump administration to try to repeal the decision. “It does not have the support of the Governor, a single member of the state’s Congressional delegation, nor any local elected officials or state legislators who represent the area.”
Utah’s Senator Mike Lee said during a December 13 Facebook Live discussion, “I want to make clear, if heaven forbid this does happen, I will work tirelessly with the incoming Trump administration to make sure that this national monument never gets off the ground; to make sure it is undone, that is defunded, unwritten, rewritten, repealed, whatever it is that we have to do to undo it.”
Incoming President-elect Donald Trump certainly could make the new national monuments a low priority, but is unlikely to be able to undo Obama’s action, said Christy Goldfuss, the managing director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
“The Antiquities Act gives the president the authority to create monuments, but does not provide explicit authority to undo them, and since the Antiquties Act was passed in 1906, both Republican and Democratic presidents have established monuments to protect our rich heritage for historic and scientific wonders. No president has actually undone a monument created by a prior president, and courts at all levels have broadly upheld the president’s authority to designate national monuments under the act.”
Since taking office in 2009, President Obama has created 29 national monuments and set aside or expanded protections for more than 550 million acres of land and water.