NRDC et al. v. Trump (Bears Ears)
On December 4, 2017, President Trump signed proclamations dismantling two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, both in southern Utah. The move stripped legal protections from nearly two million acres of federal public lands that hold incomparable archaeological, paleontological, cultural, and natural significance.
The ancestral homeland of several Native American tribes—the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni—Bears Ears National Monument encompasses an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites, including dwellings, kivas, granaries, and rock art. The land also remains culturally and religiously important to the tribes. Not only that, Bears Ears represents one of the most pristine, road-free areas in the contiguous United States, featuring a rugged labyrinth of sandstone canyons, cliffs and rock arches, juniper forests, meadows, and desert mesas.
President Trump’s proclamation slashed Bears Ears by roughly 85 percent, replacing it with two much smaller, noncontiguous “units” and leaving the rest of the area open to harmful developments such as uranium mining, oil and gas drilling, new road construction, and the use of mechanized vehicles. These types of developments will ruin the land’s wild natural character, jeopardize irreplaceable sacred sites and archaeological resources, and destroy the values the monument was created to protect.
Within hours of President Trump’s proclamation, the five Native American tribes filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, challenging the president’s action as unlawful. Two days later, NRDC and a coalition of other environmental groups followed with our own lawsuit. (We had filed a similar lawsuit over Grand Staircase-Escalante earlier the same week.) A group of conservation and advocacy organizations, businesses, and paleontological and archaeological societies also sued. As all three lawsuits explain, President Trump has neither constitutional nor statutory authority to dismantle national monuments created under the Antiquities Act of 1906. In January 2018, the district court consolidated all three lawsuits.
After their motion to transfer the cases to the federal court in Utah was denied, the federal defendants moved to dismiss the cases in October 2018. We and our fellow plaintiffs filed briefs opposing dismissal on November 15, 2018, reiterating that Trump’s proclamation overstepped presidential authority. The court has not yet ruled on the motion.
While the cases are pending, there is a real risk of harm to the lands excised from Bears Ears. The court has therefore ordered the federal government to provide plaintiffs with timely notice before beginning a range of potentially harmful developments within these now-vulnerable lands.