President Joe Biden restored Bears Ears National Monument to its previous 1.36 million-acres footprint Friday, reversing a Trump-era decision to cut as much as 85% of the southern Utah site valued for its environmental, archeological, and tribal treasures.
Bears Ears was one of three national monuments cut by former President Donald Trump that were restored by Biden, along with the 1.87 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument off the coast of New England.
The move was welcomed by environmental and tribal leaders who were on hand for Friday’s signing of the proclamations restoring the public lands, with one calling the restoration of Bears Ears “a victory for our people, our ancestors, and future generations.”
“It’s time to put Trump’s cynical actions in the rearview mirror, restore rightful protections, and restart the Bears Ears co-management arrangement with the tribes who have held this place sacred since time immemorial,” said Democratic Representative Raul Grijalva, in a prepared statement.
But Utah officials, who had criticized former President Barack Obama’s decision to create the Bears Ears monument in 2016, were not pleased.
“These decisions clearly demonstrate the administration’s unwillingness to collaborate with and listen to those most impacted by their decisions,” Utah Governor Spencer J. Cox said in a written statement Thursday.
That statement, which was also signed by the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the Senate president, and House speaker, charged that Biden’s proclamation “fails 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.”
Bears Ears was created by Obama with a stroke of the pen under the Antiquities Act, a law that allows a president to unilaterally create monuments to protect cultural and natural resources. Obama used the act more than any other president, invoking it 34 times to create 29 new monuments and enlarge five others during his term.
The monuments were an early target for Trump, who ordered a review just months into his term in 2017 and signed a proclamation before the end of that year that slashed Bears Ears from roughly 1.35 million acres to about 200,000. The reduction was welcomed by critics like then-Representative from Utah, Rob Bishop, who said at the time that the Antiquities Act has “no rules, there is no process in the law for either creation or readjustments, and that’s part of the problem.”
But Biden used the same act Friday to reverse Trump’s decision. Biden’s proclamation will not only bring back the boundaries established by Obama in 2016, but will add protections for 11,200 acres that Trump identified in 2017, for a total protected area of 1.36 million acres.
“The truth is that national monuments and parks are part of … our identity as a people,” Biden said. “They are more than natural wonders, they’re the birthright we passed from generation to generation, a birthright of every American. Preserving them is the fulfillment of a promise to our children.”
Biden on Friday recalled a promise he made while on the campaign trail, to a young girl who asked him to protect the monument as she handed him what he described as a pair of bear’s ears.
“This may be the easiest promise I’ve made in a long time,” Biden said.
Tribal, state, and federal leaders who joined Biden at the White House signing ceremony included Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, who said he “wholeheartedly supports” the expansion.
“This historic signing of the proclamation and restoration of the Bears Ears National Monument is a victory for our people, our ancestors, and future generations,” Nez said. “Bears Ears is home to many of our historical and cultural sites, plants, water, traditional medicines, and teachings for our people.”
Hopi Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma told Indian Country Today that the president had promised to “listen to Native America and Biden’s actions do prove that it is happening.”
“We do need to protect these sacred sites that not only the Hopi tribe but other tribes find significant within their history,” said Nuvangyaoma, who was also at the signing ceremony.
Grijalva and Democratic Representative Ruben Gallego had written Biden about Bears Ears in April, urging him to “strongly consider expanding the boundaries of the monument to the full 1.9 million acres proposed by the Native American Tribes whose ancestral lands the monument aims to protect.”
While the expanded monument falls short of that goal, it was still welcomed by Grijalva as proof of “this administration’s commitment to conserving our public lands and respecting the voices of Indigenous Peoples.”
Randi Spivak, director of the public lands program at the Center for Biological Diversity, called the restoration of the monuments “truly reason to celebrate,”
“This shows Biden understands the importance of these cultural and ecological treasures and the need to act boldly to protect our natural world,” said Spivak, who hopes to see the administration take the next step.
“Now Biden must quickly deliver on his pledge to protect 30% of our nation’s lands and waters by 2030, before other magnificent places are plundered by extractive industries,” she said.