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Biden and the National Monuments

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

President Trump dismantled both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monuments in 2017. What will President-elect Biden do with them?

President-elect Biden and Vice-President-elect Harris have promised not only to restore the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monuments to their former size, but also designate new protection for ecologically important landscapes. It is not known whether Biden will wait for the courts to rule on pending cases questioning the legality of Trump's actions, or act peremptorily.

T-shaped door in a remote site within the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

A recent article in the Huff Post summarizes the Biden campaign's position. I have included selected excerpts from that article below.

As President, Biden will take immediate steps to reverse the Trump administration’s assaults on America’s natural treasures, including by reversing Trump’s attacks on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Bears Ears, and Grand Staircase-Escalante,” reads their comprehensive plan for tribal nations, which the campaign released in October. 

Biden campaign spokesman Matt Hill told HuffPost that “everything we’ve put out there in campaign policies/statements still stands, but we don’t have more details beyond that at this time.”

In late 2017, after a sham review of recent national monument designations, Trump carved more than 2 million acres from the southern Utah sites. The boundary of Bears Ears, a 1.35 million-acre landscape that several tribes consider sacred, was cut by 85%. Nearby 1.87 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante, the largest land national monument in the country and rich in both archeological and paleontological resources, was cut roughly in half. 

Escalante Natural Bridge and cottonwood trees in spring. Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The Pendulum Swings

Former Vice President Biden, who clinched the 2020 presidential victory on Saturday, has signaled that he plans to swing back with a frenzy of early executive actions. While rejoining the Paris climate accord and repealing Trump’s travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority nations are expected to be Day 1 priorities, rolling back Trump’s monument rollbacks likely won’t be too far behind. 

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, made up of the five Native American tribes that petitioned the Obama administration to grant Bears Ears monument status, has already had intermediary discussions with Biden’s team, according to Keala Carter, the coalition’s public lands specialist.

“All indications seem to point to that we should have great faith in the Biden administration to uphold and build on what the Obama administration did,” she told HuffPost by phone. “It’s evident that Bears Ears in particular really hits at the intersection or some sort of crossroads of racial justice, public lands and planning for a changing climate ― I get the sense that it’s going to be really relevant to the sort of change the Biden administration wants to pursue.” 

One of the important cultural treasures in Bears Ears National Monument. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

How quickly the Biden administration might move to restore Bears Ears remains to be seen. More important than speed, Carter said, is a desire among area tribes to see it done in a way that is lasting and legally defensible.

“One of the things in particular we are anticipating is that Biden’s team is going to understand the nuance and be able to think through solutions that might not be as vulnerable,” she said.

The coalition argued it was largely cut out of Trump’s monument review process. Tribes promptly filed a lawsuit challenging Trump’s proclamation in December 2017 shrinking the Bears Ears boundary; the lawsuit was later combined with other legal challenges to the monument rollbacks. Plaintiffs in the cases argue that Congress, not the president, has the sole legal power to shrink, rescind or weaken protections for monuments designated under the Antiquities Act. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has yet to rule in the consolidated lawsuit. 

But there is plenty of reason to expect that Biden will implement an aggressive conservation agenda that includes Antiquities Act designations. 

Biden has committed to signing an executive order to conserve 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030 ― a goal in line with the United Nations’ plan for protecting biodiversity.

And the Biden-Harris plan for tribal nations notes that the administration “will work with tribal governments and Congress to protect sacred sites and public lands and waters with high conservation and cultural values,” as well as “provide tribes with a greater role in the care and management of public lands that are of cultural significance to Tribal Nations.”


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