Trump’s Pen to Bears Ears: An Unhappy Anniversary in Utah

One year ago today, President Trump traveled to Utah to undo two of the most significant actions previous Presidents had taken to protect treasured American lands. 

Trump issued new proclamations: (1) one to destroy Bears Ears National Monument and replace it with two smaller areas, amounting to only 15% of the original monument; and (2) a second removing protections from nearly half of Grand Staircase Escalante, Utah’s other grand national monument.  

In the stroke of a pen, gone were the protections enjoyed by nearly 2 million acres of our public lands.

What’s Happened Since Then

In court

  • NRDC and partner groups sued to challenge this illegal action.
  • A federal judge in Washington, DC, hearing challenges in cases on both monuments, denied the government’s request to transfer the case to Utah. 
  • The government moved to dismiss both cases challenging Trump’s action last December.
  • NRDC and others opposed those motions. 
  • The judge ordered the government to provide notice of any ground-disturbing activity on lands removed from protection by Trump’s challenged actions.

On the ground

  • The Bureau of Land Management has begun developing management plans for the smaller monuments that would replace Bears Ears. The agency has also begun the planning for the shrunken Grand Staircase Escalante Monument. In the meantime, the lands Trump eliminated from monument protection are open to oil and gas leasing, coal leasing, mining, off-road vehicle use and other destruction.
  • Zinke’s Interior Department has refused to acknowledge the Inter-tribal Commission established by the original Bears Ears proclamation.

What’s at Stake

As we await more information on the fate of these special places, which hangs in the balance with this litigation, here’s a look at what the Trump Administration is threatening, and what we are working to preserve:

  • The commitment we made to the nation’s tribes to incorporate indigenous experience and wisdom into the management of our public lands. Trump’s proclamation eliminates the Bears Ears Commission created by Obama consisting of one elected officer each from the Hopi Nation, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, and Zuni Tribe.
  • Thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs dating back at least 5,000 years and spanning a range of styles and traditions.
  • All sorts of unique landscape features, such as Comb Ridge, the San Juan River, and Cedar Mesa, closely tied to native stories of creation, danger, protection, and healing. 
  • Stunning sandstone cliffs and red rock canyons offering extraordinary opportunities for geologists, paleontologists, archeologists, historians, and biologists.
  • Mountain lions, bears, desert bighorn sheep, and other mammals along with more than 200 bird species, including bald eagles and peregrine falcons.
  • Peace. Quiet.

What Happens Next

  • The judge rules on the government’s motion to dismiss the case. 
  • If she grants it, NRDC and partners will likely appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. 
  • If the judge denies the motion to dismiss, the government will then have to answer to plaintiffs’ claims, including those of the Hopi and other tribes, that the actions of Trump, Secretary Zinke and the Interior Department are unlawful. 

About the Authors

Sharon Buccino

Senior Director, Land Division, Nature Program

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