SALT LAKE CITY — President Joe Biden signed executive orders Friday restoring the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
"This may be the easiest thing I’ve ever done so far as president — I mean it,″ the president said at a White House ceremony attended by Democratic lawmakers, tribal leaders and environmentalists.
Restoring the monuments’ boundaries and protections restores their integrity, upholds efforts to honor the federal trust responsibility to tribal nations and conserves the lands and waters for future generations, Biden said. Bears Ears in particular was an important site to protect, Biden said, noting that the 1.3-million acre site is the first national monument to be established at the request of federally recognized tribes.
It is "a place of healing ... a place of reverence and a sacred homeland to hundreds of generations of native peoples,″ Biden said.
Biden called Grand Staircase Escalante "a place of unique and extraordinary geology" and noted that the 1.9-million acre site had been protected by presidential order for 21 years before Trump’s 2017 order slashed the monument nearly in half. Trump cut Bears Ears by 85%, to just over 200,000 acres.
FOX 13 reported two weeks ago a decision on the monuments was "imminent," citing state leaders. On Thursday, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland called Governor Spencer Cox and informed him of Biden's decision. In a joint statement with Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson, Attorney General Sean Reyes, House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President J. Stuart Adams, they expressed disappointment.
Sen. Mitt Romney said the president "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," he said in a statement.
The Bears Ears National Monument was created by President Barack Obama in 2016. A year later, President Donald Trump shrunk the boundaries of both monuments. President Biden is undoing that.
The state has threatened litigation over back-and-forth of the boundaries, as well as the use of the Antiquities Act. Utah Solicitor General Melissa Holyoak told FOX 13 it was possible the state files a new lawsuit.
Across the state, reaction to Biden's executive orders was mixed. At Bears Ears, members of Native American tribes held a celebration. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance held a party at a downtown Salt Lake City hotel where people cheered when the president signed the proclamations.
"Today is a happy day for all of us," said Mark Maryboy, a Navajo elder and SUWA board member.
SUWA was among a coalition of environmental and tribal groups that sued when President Trump shrunk the monument boundaries. The alliance's legal director said they would likely intervene in support of the federal government when Utah files its lawsuit challenging President Biden's actions.
Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, whose district includes Bears Ears National Monument, told FOX 13 he hoped the state would sue.
"What is the role of being a state if you don’t have jurisdiction of the land within your boundaries?" he said.
Rep. Lyman has sponsored some legislation on Bears Ears, including getting some funds to create a visitors center. But he said the federal government needs to step up and appropriate more resources for the monuments.
"If the federal government is going to take control of large areas of our state, they should take some responsibility for it," he said.
Sen. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, whose district includes Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, agreed. He called it "government overreach."
"Nobody’s against the right use of these lands, it’s just the management of them," Sen. Owens said. "So there will be no law enforcement that comes with this monument expansion, there will be no restrooms."
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson joined some Utah legislators and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez at the White House for President Biden's signing.
“We need to take proactive measures to protect our vital and cherished federal lands in Utah. Additionally, this move honors the wishes of Native Americans who have stood firm for justice, by preserving more than 100,000 sacred, archeological, and cultural sites. The restoration and preservation of Obama-era boundaries is appropriate land policy. These lands don’t need to be developed or extracted. There is value in investing in our tourism economy and expanding clean industries," the mayor said in a statement.