SALT LAKE CITY – The state of Utah and two Republican-leaning rural counties sued the Biden administration on Wednesday over the president's decision last year to restore two sprawling national monuments on rugged lands sacred to Native Americans that former President Donald Trump had downsized.
The lawsuit over Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, the two southeastern Utah monuments, alleges that President Joe Biden's action violates a century-old law that allows presidents to protect sites considered historically, geographically or culturally important and outlines the rules governing when they can do so.
The fate of the monuments is among the United States' most prominent battles over public lands and how they're managed. Federal land management decisions often become politically charged throughout the rural West, where Republican-leaning ranching communities skeptical of federal overreach are often pitted against conservationists and tribes who argue robust federal protections are needed as a bulwark against development or industries like mining or logging.
The new lawsuit is the latest twist in a yearslong debate spanning three presidential administrations. Its arguments revisit familiar legal and political debates and touch on points Republicans have for years repeated in court and in campaign speeches about federal land grabs and advantages of local land management.
The challenge from Utah and two right-leaning rural jurisdictions, Kane and Garfield counties, had been expected since Biden restored the lands in October 2021. At that time, Biden called Bears Ears “a place of reverence and a sacred homeland to hundreds of generations of native peoples.”
The monuments, which together are nearly the size of Connecticut, contain canyons surrounded by pink ribbons of limestone, dramatic red rock mesas and buttes, juniper forests and Native American artifacts including ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.
In a Wednesday joint statement in support of the lawsuit, Gov. Spencer Cox and Utah's entire congressional delegation accused the federal government of not properly managing the land and blamed the expanded monuments for “unmanageable visitation levels.”
“We now challenge this repeated, abusive federal overreach to ensure that our public lands are adequately protected and that smart stewardship remains with the people closest to the land," said the group, whose signatories included U.S. Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration had no comment about the lawsuit.
The lawsuit brings the battle over these lands back to the courtroom, similar to what happened in 2017 after Trump made his move to shrink the monuments. At that time, lawsuits were filed by outdoor company Patagonia and a coalition of tribes including the Hopi, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni tribes and Navajo Nation to restore the monuments.
“The tribes have been fighting for decades, and really centuries, to protect these lands," Matthew Campbell, deputy director of the Native American Rights Fund, said Wednesday. “It looks like they will have to continue that fight.”
The part of southeastern Utah where the two monuments are located has been at the center of some of the country’s most heated land management debates since President Bill Clinton designated Grand Staircase a national monument in 1996.
Bears Ears, which was designated a National Monument by President Barack Obama, is unique because land management decisions are made by a commission jointly governed by federal agency officials and representatives from five tribal nations. The commission was reestablished this past June, five years after it and an Obama-era joint governance plan was scrapped when the Trump administration downsized the monuments in 2017.
That decision opened parts of the monuments up for mining, drilling and other development. Low demand and high production costs led to minimal interest from energy companies in the lands that became unprotected when Trump downsized the monuments, including a large coal reserve found in the lands cut from Grand Staircase or uranium on lands cut from Bears Ears.
Utah's lawsuit argues the Biden administration interpreted the 1906 Antiquities Act in an overly broad manner and disregarded its original intent: protecting particular historical or archaeological sites. It cites provisions of the act that say designations should encompass “the smallest area compatible” with preservation goals.
Democratic presidents have argued designating large swaths of land is needed to protect certain areas and in his October 2021 proclamation, Biden called the Bears Ears designation “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects of historic and scientific interest."
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.