President Donald Trump paid a visit to Utah on Tuesday, December 4, 2017, along with Senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee and members of the Utah Delegation, including Chris Stewart. He came to announce that he would be reducing the size of two of Utah’s National Monuments: Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In his announcement at the Utah State Capitol building in Salt Lake City, he said, “The Antiquities Act does not give the Federal Government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it’s time we ended this abusive practice.” The Antiquities Act is a 1906 law granting presidents the authority to set aside national monuments and was the law that enabled presidents Clinton and Obama to declare both the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments.
According to a White House press release, “Bears Ears National Monument will be modified to two units…. encompassing a total of 228,784 acres of land. Bears Ears was originally designated in 2016 to encompass nearly 1.5 million acres.” In addition, it states, “Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument will be modified to three units encompassing combined 1,006,341 acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.” That would cut the Grand Staircase nearly in half.
This action is not without controversy, despite the Presidents assertion during his speech, saying that it is “not controversial.” Early in his first term, President Trump ordered Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review over 20 national monuments the administration deemed too large. During that process, nearly 3 million comments were received in opposition to modifying the monument’s boundaries. Local officials, however, claim that the monuments stifle economic growth and amount to a federal overreach.
Groups in opposition to the Presidents order wasted no time in filing complaints in federal court. The Bears Ears Tribal Coalition, environmental groups, and outdoor recreation companies quickly filed suit, claiming that the action violates the constitution and runs afoul of the plain text of the Antiquities Act, which they say does not explicitly grant the president power to modify designations by previous presidents.
While the outcome of the action is uncertain, pending judicial review, one thing is certain: the lands are still under federal control. Despite hopes of economic boosts to communities near the monuments from potential mining on those lands, Governor Herbert’s office posted a Division of Natural Resources fact sheet saying, “According to studies completed by the Utah Geological Survey, the Bears Ears National Monument as originally designated does not hold significant energy development potential.”
As for the fossil fuel reserves in the Grand Staircase Escalante, it is difficult to determine whether it would be a job creator. Coal industry employment has dropped dramatically since the 1950’s, largely due to productivity gains. Any coal development would be highly mechanized and would likely provide little by way of good paying long-term jobs.