NRDC et al. v. Trump (Bears Ears)
On December 4, 2017, then-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 cultural, archaeological, paleontological, and ecological 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 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 the proclamation, five Native American tribes filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C., challenging the president’s action as unlawful. Two days later, NRDC—along with 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, and the district court consolidated the lawsuits. As all three lawsuits explain, President Trump had neither constitutional nor statutory authority to dismantle national monuments.
On January 9, 2020, we moved for summary judgment. While we were awaiting the district court’s decision, Trump’s presidency ended, and President Biden took office promising to restore protections to national monuments. On his first day in office, President Biden issued an executive order initiating a review of Trump’s rollbacks to Bears Ears, Grand Staircase–Escalante, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts. We are urging President Biden to fulfill his promise and swiftly restore full protections to all three monuments.
Given the possibility of presidential action, the Biden administration has requested—and the district court has granted—a stay of the court proceedings. In the meantime, however, the lands excised from Bears Ears remain at risk of long-lasting harm. The court has therefore ordered the federal government to provide plaintiffs with timely notice before beginning a range of potentially harmful developments within these vulnerable lands.