By Lindsay Whitehurst and Matthew Daly
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON » President Joe Biden will restore two sprawling national monuments in Utah that have been at the center of a long-running public lands dispute, and a separate marine conservation area in New England that recently has been used for commercial fishing. Environmental protections at all three monuments had been stripped by former President Donald Trump.
The White House announced the changes Thursday night before a ceremony expected Friday.
Utah Gov. 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 2 million acres from the two monuments, calling restrictions on mining and other energy production a “massive land grab” that “should never have happened.”
His actions slashed Bears Ears, on lands considered sacred to Native American tribes, by 85%, to slightly more than 200,000 acres. They cut Grand Staircase-Escalante by nearly half, leaving it at about 1 million acres. Both monuments were created by Democratic presidents.
The White House said in a statement 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 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 forbid the fishing.
Protecting the marine monument safeguards “this invaluable area for the fragile species that call it home” and demonstrates 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, also 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.”
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.”
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.
Conservative state leaders considered the size of both monuments U.S. government overreach.