The Trump Administration recently suffered a setback in its attempt to dismantle Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, two parks created under the Antiquities Act by President Barak Obama.
While both parks are in Utah, the Trump Administration’s move to unmake the parks and the subsequent lawsuits are being carefully watched by park advocates throughout the West, because the outcome of Hopi Tribe vs. Donald Trump is expected to have long-reaching implications for federal lands all over the country, including Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
In 2017, as one of his first acts as president, Donald Trump stripped nearly two million acres of public land from the monuments. It was the first part of a systematic dismantling of protections for public lands that now stands at 13.5 million acres and includes more than 1.3 million acres in California’s Mojave Desert.
Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante represent one of the largest remaining undeveloped, road-free areas of wilderness in the contiguous United States. The national monuments are part of the ancestral homeland of the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the Pueblo of Zuni. They are home to thousands of cultural heritage, archaeological and paleontological sites, but they also have mining and oil assets that the Trump Administration was eager to exploit.
Trump’s proclamation slashed Bears Ears by nearly 85 percent, leaving just two small non-contiguous parks. It was the largest rollback of federal public land protection in U.S. history, and was instantly met by multiple lawsuits filed by Native American Tribes, conservation organizations, outdoor recreation advocates, and other stakeholders.
The lawsuits were consolidated into one suit—The Hopi Tribe vs. Donald J. Trump—that argues Trump’s attempt to revoke and replace the national monument was a violation of the United States Constitution and the Antiquities Act of 1906.
“No President has ever previously sought to abolish [a national monument] by Proclamation because the Antiquities Act does not authorize the President to do so,” the lawsuit states. “The President has exceeded the limited authority delegated to his office, and violated the Antiquities Act and the separation of powers established in the Constitution. Further, the President was plainly aware that he lacked the authority to revoke a monument.”
In response, the Trump Administration filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing that the tribes and environmental advocacy groups “lacked standing” to challenge the President’s decision.
On September 30, US District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutkan rejected the administration’s argument. The court ruling clears the way for the lawsuit to move forward.
The judge also ordered a status conference “to discuss an expedited, coordinated schedule for the filing of an amended complaint and the subsequent briefing.”
The expedited schedule is being hailed with cautious optimism by activists, who have watched the Trump Administration launch a feeding frenzy of oil leases on more than 51,000 acres of land near the greatly diminished park, and rush through a management plan that would open the 85-percent carved off the original Bears Ears National Monument to oil and gas leases; roads; uranium mining; and “chaining,” a scorched earth clear-cutting process to convert forest and scrub land for cattle grazing.
The management plan has been denounced by environmental groups. “If we win the legal fight to restore Bears Ears National Monument, this plan will just be 800 pages of wasted effort,” said Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountains office.
Earthjustice represents nine of the groups challenging the President’s actions: the Wilderness Society, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, the Grand Canyon Trust, Defenders of Wildlife, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, and the Center for Biological Diversity. The Natural Resources Defense Council and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are the co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit, represented by counsel from those organizations.
“When Trump went after our national monuments, he thought he could ride roughshod over this country’s cultural and natural heritage, and auction off iconic public lands that belong to all of us,” McIntosh said. “But this remains a country of laws. We will work relentlessly until we ensure that Bears Ears and Grand Staircase are protected forever as they were meant to be.”
The move to quickly sell off federal lands and strip the parkland of environmental protections has drawn extensive criticism from tribal groups, conservationists and Utah’s tourism industry. Tribal groups have blasted the Trump Administration for failing to protect cultural resources that include sacred sites and burials. Other resources at risk include key fossil beds, critically important watersheds and habitat for threatened and endangered animals.
For Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance legal director Stephen Bloch, a court date for the lawsuit can’t come soon enough.
“The day of reckoning for President Trump’s unlawful attack on the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments drew closer when Judge Chutkan issued her decision denying the United States’ motions to dismiss these cases,” Bloch wrote in a statement. “We intend to pursue these cases until these remarkable cultural, scientific and wild red rock landscapes are restored to their full glory.”
As the court case moves forward, many of the Tribal groups and non-profit conservation organizations involved in the suit, and in the fight to block the Trump Administration from weakening or eliminating other key environmental protections, have joined together to do their own lobbying, urging companies involved in mining or other extractive activities and the banks that fund them, not to conduct or finance any new or expanded commercial activity on any public lands and waters that were formerly or are currently protected.
“President Trump’s Department of Interior has been a catastrophe for our iconic American wildlife since day one,” wrote Marty Irby, Executive Director of Animal Wellness Action, announcing the newly formed coalition.
“Pillaging our nation’s public lands to line the pockets of oil barons and ranchers beholden to industrial agriculture will have disastrous consequences for generations to come,”stated Davis Filfred, Chair of the Utah Diné Bikéyah Board. “As Indigenous People of America, we are stewards of ancestral landscapes like Bears Ears and other cultural landscapes currently under threat from corporate hands. We ask the broader American public to stand with us to protect public lands—which starts with the recognition that Indigenous Peoples have always protected and will continue to protect their homelands.”