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Utah sues the feds over Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument boundaries

Posted at 1:42 PM, Aug 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-24 19:49:39-04

SALT LAKE CITY  — The state of Utah has filed a lawsuit over President Biden's decision to reinstate the boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, accuses the president of violating the Antiquities Act of 1906. Garfield and Kane counties joined the state in the litigation.

"This is one of the worst instances of federal overreach that we’ve ever seen," said Utah Solicitor General Melissa Holyoak. "The Antiquities Act, it gives the president the power to designate an object as a monument and then to designate that object around that area as the smallest area compatible for the care and management of that object. But here, Biden, he designated over three million acres. It’s twice the size of his home state."

Bears Ears National Monument was created in 2016 by President Obama. Its boundaries, and those of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, were shrunk a year later by President Trump. In 2021, President Biden reinstated the original boundaries for both monuments.

Ever since Bears Ears was created, state leaders have threatened litigation. Last year, Utah's Solicitor General told FOX 13 News that the state would likely sue over President Biden's executive order.

U.S. Department of Interior officials declined to comment when contacted by FOX 13 News on Wednesday.

"Here we go again," Woody Lee, the executive director of the indigenous lands protection group Utah Diné Bikéyah, said in an interview with FOX 13 News.

He said native people were trying to preserve the area for future generations.

"This our cathedral. This is where we place our offerings. This is a place of prayer. This is our living classroom. This is our food cabinet. This is our grocery store. This is land where not only Navajo but other natives have ties to," Lee said.

Utah Diné Bikéyah is weighing whether to intervene in the litigation, Lee said. A coalition of environmental and tribal groups are still actively suing the federal government over President Trump's decision to shrink the monuments. Recently, legislative leadership approved a land swap with the federal government inside the Bears Ears National Monument.

The Center for Western Priorities called Utah's lawsuit a "poor decision."

"Not only do the people of Utah support the protection of these impressive and significant landscapes, the legal case against the monuments is thin," the group's executive director, Jennifer Rokala, said in a statement. "By filing a lawsuit against the federal government over these monuments, the State of Utah is wasting taxpayer money trying to undermine something that is evident to anyone who spends time in these remarkable landscapes—that Bears Ears and Grand Staircase deserve protection. Both legal and historical precedent support the creation of these landscape-scale monuments, and public opinion is with them as well."

In a joint statement, Governor Spencer Cox, Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson, State Auditor John Dougall, Treasurer Marlo Oaks, and Senate President J. Stuart Adams, House Speaker Brad Wilson, U.S. Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, and Congressmen Chris Stewart, John Curtis, Burgess Owens, and Blake Moore all defended the lawsuit. They argued that there still are not adequate resources to protect either monument.

"These public lands and sacred sites are a stewardship that none of us take lightly. The archeological, paleontological, religious, recreational, and geologic values need to be harmonized and protected. Rather than guarding those resources, President Biden’s unlawful designations place them all at greater risk," they said. "The vast size of the expanded Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments draws unmanageable visitation levels to these lands without providing any of the tools necessary to adequately conserve and protect these resources."

Holyoak told FOX 13 News the state would seek to undo President Biden's declaration. It is entirely possible the monument boundaries would be dissolved entirely, should Utah prevail. She said it is also likely the case goes to the U.S. Supreme Court and the state would prefer a congressional resolution to monument disputes.

Lee said he would prefer Utah drop its lawsuit.

"This should not go any further and we should all come to an agreement and an understanding that we need to heal and move forward," he said.

Read the lawsuit here: