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Update: Status of Bears Ears Lawsuit

On the 114th anniversary of the Antiquities Act, there is progress in the lawsuit challenging president Trump's 2017 order to reduce the size of the monument by 85%.

Several masonry structures are discretely placed behind a defensive wall in an alcove in Bears Ears National Monument. Photo: Donald J. Rommes.

Bears Ears National Monument was created in 2016 by President Obama to preserve the accumulated cultural record of thousands of years of habitation by people descended from the original North Americans. It was created under the authority of the Antiquities Act and after years-long study and consultation with the public and stakeholders. The borders of the 1.35 million acre monument corresponded closely to what Utah' Public Lands Initiative suggested and was somewhat smaller than the recommendations of the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition. Finally, there was some hope that what remained of the region's ancient cultural treasures might be preserved for future generations.

A mere eleven months after its creation, President Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85%. Important areas, formerly protected within Monument boundaries, were now outside. Of special concern, Cedar Mesa—which has the monument's highest density of important cultural sites—is now outside the monument boundaries and no longer has the additional protection that comes with National Monument status. 

Several ancient structures, a portal, and rock art are strung out on a high ledge in Cedar Mesa are no longer protected by National Monument status. Photo: Donald J. Rommes.

The public uproar generated by shrinking the monument’s boundaries drew attention to the area, leading to burgeoning visitation just as protection was lost—the worst possible scenario. Lawsuits, seeking to overturn Trump’s decision, were filed by public land advocates and the Inter-tribal council. As the fate of Bears Ears National Monument was being argued in the courts, cultural treasures are being lost or degraded at an increasing rate. 

Now, two and a half years later, there is some progress to report. Here's how Regina Fitzsimmons, writing for Friends of Cedar Mesa put it in a recent post.

Bears Ears, in particular, was the first time sovereign Tribal nations united to request the use of the Antiquities Act to protect Indigenous homelands and elevate the voice of Indigenous peoples in land management. This is why the ensuing attempted 85% reduction of Bears Ears National Monument is truly a travesty.

We contend the Antiquities Act, a bedrock piece of legislation enacted by Congress in 1906, grants Presidents the power to designate National Monuments, not eviscerate protections for public lands. The act remains one of the most effective ways to protect resources, aside from full congressional action.

Today, progress is being made in the effort to defend this vital piece of legislation designed to protect America’s most threatened and valuable cultural landscapes.

After years of legal wrangling, all filings by those involved in the Bears Ears lawsuit are now complete, and Judge Chutkan now has the information she needs to render a decision. While this is certainly welcome news in moving the case forward, it could still be months before we receive a ruling.

Keep your fingers crossed! Better yet, contact the National Trust for Historic Preservation or the Friends of Cedar Mesa to see how you might help. You may also find this Washington Post article from 2019 to be informative.


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