President Joe Biden will restore two sprawling national monuments in Utah that have been at the center of a long-running public land dispute and a separate marine conservation area in New England that recently has been used for commercial fishing. Environmental protection at all three monuments had been stripped by former President Donald Trump.
The White House announced the changes Thursday night ahead of a ceremony expected Friday, Utah Governor Spencer Cox, a Republican, expressed disappointment in Biden’s decision to restore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments, which the Trump administration downsized significantly in 2017.
The monuments cover vast expanses of southern Utah where red rocks reveal petroglyphs and cliff dwellings and distinctive buttes bulge from a grassy valley. Trump invoked the century-old Antiquities Act to cut 800,000 hectares from the two monuments, calling restrictions on mining and other energy production a “massive land grab” that “should never have happened.” His actions cut Bears Ears, on lands considered sacred to Native American tribes, by 85 percent, to just over 80,900 hectares. They slashed Grand Staircase-Escalante by nearly half, leaving it at about 405,000 hectares. Both monuments were created by Democratic presidents.
The White House said in a statement Thursday night that Biden was “fulfilling a key promise” to restore the monuments to their full size and “upholding the longstanding principle that America’s national parks, monuments, and other protected areas are to be protected for all time and for all people”, Biden’s actions were among a series of steps the administration has taken to protect public lands and waters, the White House said, including moves to halt oil leasing in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and prevent road-building in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the nation’s largest federal forest.
Biden’s plan also restores protections in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument in the Atlantic Ocean, southeast of Cape Cod. Trump had made a rule change to allow commercial fishing at the marine monument, an action that was heralded by fishing groups but derided by environmentalists who pushed Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to restore protections against fishing, Protecting the marine monument would “safeguard this invaluable area for the fragile species that call it home” and demonstrate the administration’s commitment to science, said Jen Felt, ocean campaign director for the Conservation Law Foundation.
Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, praised the Biden administration in a statement, saying restoring the monuments shows its dedication to “conserving our public lands and respecting the voices of Indigenous Peoples.” “It’s time to put Trump’s cynical actions in the rear-view mirror,” Grijalva said.
But Utah’s governor called Biden’s decision a “tragic missed opportunity.” The president’s action “fails to provide certainty as well as the funding for law enforcement, research and other protections which the monuments need and which only Congressional action can offer,” Cox said in a statement released with other state leaders, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney also criticized Biden, saying in a tweet the president had “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,” Romney said Thursday.
“The decision to re-expand the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is a devastating blow to our state, local and tribal leaders and our delegation … today’s winner take all’ mentality moved us further away from that goal.”, Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group, also applauded Biden’s decision and said she hopes it marks an initial step toward his goal of conserving at least 30 percent of US lands and ocean by 2030.
“Thank you, President Biden,” Rokala said in a statement “You have listened to Indigenous tribes and the American people and ensured these landscapes will be protected for generations to come.” Trump’s cuts ironically increased the national attention to Bears Ears, Rokala said. She called on the federal government to increase funding to manage the landscape and handle growing crowds.
Haaland, the first Indigenous Cabinet secretary, traveled to Utah in April to visit the monuments, becoming the latest federal official to step into what has been a yearslong public lands battle. Haaland submitted her recommendations on the monuments in June.
Former President Barack Obama proclaimed Bears Ears a national monument in 2016, 20 years after former President Bill Clinton moved to protect Grand Staircase-Escalante. Bears Ears was the first site to receive the designation at the specific request of tribes.
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