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 thousands of cultural sites, including dwellings, kivas, granaries, and rock art, that hold deep cultural and religious importance to the tribes today. Bears Ears also 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, meadows, and desert mesas. President Obama established the Monument in 2016 based on the tribes’ proposal, which NRDC and partners supported.
President Trump’s proclamation slashed Bears Ears by roughly 85 percent, replacing it with two much smaller, noncontiguous monument “units” and leaving the rest of the area open to harmful developments such as uranium mining, oil and gas drilling, road construction, and the use of mechanized vehicles.
Within hours of President Trump’s proclamation, five Native American tribes filed a lawsuit in federal court in D.C., challenging the president’s action as unlawful. Two days later, NRDC, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and a coalition of other environmental groups represented by Earthjustice followed with our own lawsuit. (We filed a similar lawsuit over Grand Staircase-Escalante earlier the same week.) A third group of plaintiffs—including grassroots organization Utah Diné Bikéyah, outdoor retailer Patagonia, and others—also sued.
As all three lawsuits explain, President Trump has neither constitutional nor statutory authority to dismantle national monuments. In January 2018, the district court consolidated all three lawsuits.
In September 2018, the district court denied the federal defendants’ request to transfer the cases to the federal court in Utah. The federal defendants then moved to dismiss the cases in October 2018, supported by the State of Utah and several other intervenors. We and our fellow plaintiffs opposed dismissal and eight groups of amici curiae—law professors, members of Congress, and others—filed amicus briefs in support. In September 2019, the court denied the federal defendants’ motion to dismiss, while also directing us and our fellow plaintiff groups to file amended complaints with updated facts relating to our standing.
We filed our amended complaints on November 7, 2019, and on January 9, 2020, we moved for summary judgment. As of June 9, 2020, briefing on the summary judgment motions is complete and we are awaiting the court’s decision.
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.