Conservative Utah legislators are seeking to challenge a recent presidential order that established Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, vast expanses of land in the state that are home to around 100,000 archaeological sites, as national monuments. The potential dispute aims to roll back the land’s protected status, opening it to development, mining, and natural resource extraction.
The expanses are home to locales such as Lime Ridge Clovis, Comb Ridge and Perfect Kiva, which include prehistoric Indigenous artifacts and ceremonial sites. Patrick Gonzales-Rogers, the executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, an Indigenous-led organization that advocates for land preservation, has said that the region contains “one of the highest densities of archaeological findings in the U.S.”
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In October, President Joe Biden reversed an order instated by Donald Trump in 2017 that shrunk the protected portion of the southern Utah land and encouraged development. At the time, there had been legal challenges to Trump’s move by Native American coalitions in the region. Under Trump’s order, Bears Ears was reduced by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 50 percent. It marked the largest reduction to federally protected land in U.S. history.
The reestablishment of the expanses as monuments was opposed by Utah’s state’s rural Republican county commissioners and governor, who argue that expanding the land’s boundaries to such vast protections could limit ranching and mining opportunities in the region. In response, Utah’s Republican attorney general, Sean Reyes, revealed in December that state officials have tapped the law firm Consovoy McCarthy to advise on potential litigation that could challenge Biden’s mandate, which was issued under the 1906 Antiquities Act.
At the time of the decision in October, Utah governor Spencer J. Cox expressed opposition to the order, calling it “disappointing, but not surprising” in a statement. Cox added that the expansion failed “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.” Some legal experts have argued that Utah could challenge Biden’s order on the basis that it violates the statute’s provision, which says that the protected boundaries must be the “smallest size necessary for the protection and preservation of the objects identified.”
Other Utah officials say that Biden’s use of the Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to designate federal lands with cultural significance as national monuments, overextends federal reach in the area and ignores the interests of state and local governments in managing it. Around two-thirds of Utah’s land is federally owned.
The land has been subject of a political battle for more than two decades, with various presidents issuing orders to expand and shrink it. The region was given protection in 2016 by President Barack Obama.