President Joe Biden reinstated Obama-era boundaries for a trio of national monuments Friday, expanding the monuments by millions of acres under rigid federal restrictions.
The new boundaries include more than 1.3 million acres at Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and more than 1.8 million acres at the state’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Biden also reintroduced commercial fishing limits on the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument 130 off the New England coast.
“I am proud to stand with President Biden in restoring these monuments and fulfilling his commitment to the American people,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who, at the helm of the administration’s aggressive land agenda urged the president to reinstate the federal land grab in June.
The move reverses cuts made by former President Donald Trump on his first year in office, who in turn was peeling back boundaries established by President Barack Obama on the way out. On the recommendation of former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in a review of monuments erected by the Antiquities Act since 1996, Trump reduced Bears Ears’ borders by 85 percent, and shrunk the boundary of Grand Staircase by about half. Separately in 2020, Trump removed environmental regulations on Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine.
A Federal Land Grab Beyond Legal Limits
Biden’s decision marks the greatest presidential land takeover since Barack Obama, who created or expanded 29 national monuments encompassing 553 million acres using the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect cultural or natural resources from looting or destruction.
While the law grants presidential authority to establish protected areas, it was never intended to be used for the sweeping creation of quasi-national parks in the absence of congressional approval. For the executive to invoke the century-old legislation introducing new protections, important limitations exist: One, there must be an object to be protected, whether it’s geologic, historic, or prehistoric. Two, the monument itself must be on federal land. Three, the land to go under protection must be “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” President Obama routinely violated all three.
The first monument preserved under the Antiquities Act by President Roosevelt was Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, which encompasses less than 1,200 acres. That’s far lower than the more than 3 million acres locked under federal protection in Utah by Presidents Biden and Obama, and far less than the 553 million acres shielded under Obama’s entire tenure.
“That goes to show you how radical the environmental movement has become,” Zinke said of the Democrats’ land grab, explaining in an interview with The Federalist his recommendations to shrink monumental boundaries four years ago were driven by desire to follow the spirit of the Antiquities Act as intended. The leftist movement to lock up millions of acres from public use and state management has become more about “control” instead of “stewardship and management.”
While typically touted as triumphant feats in the preservation of sacred public land for generations, national monuments lock off public access and opportunities for ranching, fishing, and recreation. Those restrictions then present ripple effects on the economies of surrounding rural communities with limited options to develop.
Indian Relics Maintained Protection Under Trump
On Thursday, Haaland celebrated Biden’s reinstated protections as a major victory for American Indians.
“The historical connection between Indigenous peoples and Bears Ears is undeniable,” Haaland said. “This living landscape must be protected so that all Americans have the profound opportunity to learn and cherish our history.”
Out of the five monuments Zinke ultimately made recommendations about in 2017, none suggested eliminating them. Instead, their size was to be reduced to protect property worthy of preservation under the Antiquities Act with minimal infringement on surrounding areas. The 800,000 acres stripped from Grand Staircase still maintained federal protection as wilderness, allowing the land to be used for hunting and grazing.
At Bears Ears, the area under reinstated monumental protections is larger than neighboring Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks combined, surpassing the Antiquities Act’s mandate that “the smallest area compatible” with care of the object in question, the towering buttes, be properly preserved.
“There were no antiquities,” Zinke said of a majority of the expanded Bears Ears’ territory, beyond Indian artifacts, which are still prohibited from removal without permit on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. The acreage stripped of monument status kept protections while enhancing opportunities for public use. Objects that remained within the Trump-era boundaries include the “Bears Ears” buttes, Lime Ridge Clovis Site, Moon House Ruin, Doll House Ruin, Indian Creek Rock Art, and Newspaper Rock.
“If you’re going to take arrowheads as an object to protect, then you’re going to have to protect the entire state of Montana,” added Zinke, a Montana native now running for a seat in the House of Representatives in the state’s newly created second district.
Despite lucrative coal reserves found at the Kaiparowits Plateau located within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Casey Hammond, a former Interior official in the Trump administration who coordinated management following boundary reduction, told The Federalist neither area attracted much interest.
“It’s not like you had oil and gas pouring in, or mining development pouring in,” Hammond said, noting the administration’s efforts were primarily to build infrastructure for tourist’s as Utah’s industry explodes. “I had zero oil and gas companies who said, ‘We really want to go up to Bears Ears or Grand Staircase.’ The number is exactly zero.” The Republican-led state also blocked permitting for mines in the 1990s, and representatives from the state’s congressional delegation have sought to permanently ban mineral extraction.
Meanwhile, Hammond said, the area saw increased destruction from the monuments’ designation. That drew more looting and resource effects without the infrastructure needed for adequate preservation.
“In one year it experienced more damage and degradation than in the prior 50,” Hammond said. “That place has been there for thousands of years and the idea that Obama somehow saved it a month before he left office is a total lie.”