Utah and two of its rural counties filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration Wednesday over the White House’s move to radically expand a pair of national monuments in the southern half of the state.
Last fall, President Joe Biden unilaterally restored the Obama-era boundaries for a pair of national monuments in southern Utah that were trimmed down by President Donald Trump in 2017 under recommendations from state leaders. Biden’s reversal of Trump’s decision restored Bears Ears National Monument to its former size of more than 1.3 million acres and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to more than 1.8 million acres.
Wednesday’s lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, argues Biden’s order claiming millions of acres under federal jurisdiction violated guidelines in the law which allow presidents to protect sites considered historically, geographically, or culturally significant.
The Monuments and Antiquities Act of 1906 was first used by President Theodore Roosevelt to preserve the Wyoming monument at Devil’s Tower from looting and destruction. A key parameter in the law mandates that the land to go under protection be “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” The provision was intended to keep presidents from abusing the law for the sweeping creation of quasi-national parks in the absence of congressional approval.
“Consistent with that plain text, the Act was originally understood to authorize the president to make ‘small reservations’ that would include ‘only so much land as may be absolutely necessary for the preservation of those interesting relics of prehistoric times,'” the lawsuit reads. “The Act does not authorize the president to declare entire landscapes as national monuments.”
To comply with the law’s requirement to preserve the “smallest area compatible,” President Trump relinquished more than 2 million acres from the two monuments that were placed under protection by President Barack Obama. The 800,000 acres stripped from Grand Staircase still maintained federal protection as designated wilderness, allowing the land to be used for hunting and grazing. The area placed back under monumental status at Bears Ears is larger than neighboring Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks combined. All Indian relics pertinent to the two sites maintained federal protection under Trump.
In a joint statement released upon the filing of the lawsuit, the state’s congressional delegation, the governor’s office, and statehouse leadership condemned Biden’s reversal of Trump’s decision as “abusive federal overreach” and complained the size of the monuments make them “unmanageable.”
“These public lands and sacred sites are a stewardship that none of us take lightly,” state leaders wrote. “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.”
In March, North America’s largest outdoor trade show, Outdoor Retailer, announced it would return its programming to Salt Lake City after a five-year stint in Denver to protest state leaders’ move to trim the two monuments. The biannual trade show historically draws 50,000 visitors and $45 million in annual revenue.