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Interior Secretary Deb Haalands stands in Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

Interior Secretary Deb Haalands stands in Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. (Photo: Twitter/@SecDebHaaland)

Tribes, Conservationists Urge Haaland to Restore 'Sacred' National Monuments During Utah Visit

Campaigners tell Biden's new Interior Secretary to undo the attack on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Andrea Germanos

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is visiting Utah this week as the Biden administration weighs restoring the boundaries of two national monuments in the state that were dramatically shrunk by former President Donald Trump.

At issue are Bears Ears, established as a monument by former President Barack Obama, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, established by the Clinton White House. In the face of overwhelming public opposition, Trump in 2017 slashed Bears Ears by roughly 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by about half, leaving unprotected areas open to extractive and polluting industries.

President Joe Biden announced on his first day in office that the Interior Department would review Trump's order to reduce the size of both monuments.

Haaland began a two-day visit to Utah on Thursday and has met with tribal leaders, the Utah congressional delegation, and Republican Gov. Spencer Cox. She's also set to meet with other stakeholders on Thursday.

As the Associated Press reported Thursday:

Environmental, tribal, paleontological, and outdoor recreation organizations are suing to restore the monuments' original boundaries, arguing presidents don't have legal authority to change monuments their predecessors created. On the flip side, Republicans have argued Democratic presidents misused the Antiquities Act signed by President Theodore Roosevelt to designate monuments beyond what's necessary to protect archaeological and cultural resources.

Haaland will be a key player in deciding what comes next

She has said she will follow Biden's agenda, not her own, on oil and gas drilling, and told reporters at a briefing last week that her report to the president will reflect conversations with people who know and understand the area.

That's giving conservation and Indigenous advocates reason for hope.

Tim Peterson, cultural landscapes director at Grand Canyon Trust, wrote last week:

Secretary Haaland knows Utah's national monuments. She introduced the ANTIQUITIES ACT of 2019 in Congress, a bill which would have restored Grand Staircase-Escalante and expanded Bears Ears, and she sponsored the BEARS Act, a bill that would have expanded Bears Ears. As a member of Pueblo of Laguna and with Jemez Pueblo heritage, she knows these ancestral lands on a much deeper level. At a 2019 hearing examining the monument cuts, Haaland said: "It's easy to get emotional about our natural resources and about traditional tribal land when you know that your ancestors have been there for generations, and that it's only because of them that you sit here today."

The secretary is facing calls from a diverse range of voices to tell the president the monuments should be restored to their original sizes.

In a letter to Biden and Haaland dated March 24, dozens of outdoor-focused companies including Patagonia and Cliff Bar wrote, "your administration must work to both protect these unique landscapes and respect Native American leadership."

"As your administration considers the needs of the people who live in these regions, it is clear that access to land in its natural state is a strong and durable economic driver. Rural communities like those adjacent to these monuments have begun the work to reduce their dependence on resource extraction industries, and attract both visitors and new quality-of-life residents who value these protected landscapes while providing reliable future jobs and local government revenues," the companies wrote.

The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board also urged Haaland to restore the monuments to their original size, writing in an open letter to Haaland released Wednesday that doing so would have "the support not only of the Indigenous peoples but also elected leaders in San Juan and Grand counties and the cities of Moab and Bluff." 

"Obama's 1.3 million-acre designation [of Bears Ears] was already the compromise from the 2 million acres sought by the Native nations," they wrote.

The Navajo Nation told Haaland Wednesday that they want the monument expanded, not simply returned to its original size. They, along with the Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute, Hopi Tribe, and Zuni Tribe have called for the monument to encompass 1.9 million acres.

After his in-person meeting with Haaland, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, said in a statement (pdf) it "was an opportunity to share with Secretary Haaland the significance of Bears Ears to the Navajo people. This landscape is home to many historical and cultural sites, plants, water, traditional medicines, and teachings for our people. It also provided refuge for our people in times of conflict. One of our most notable leaders, Chief Manuelito, was born there, but it is more than that."

"Bears Ears is sacred and it deserves to be protected," said Nez.

Peterson of the Grand Canyon Trust thinks there's reason to be hopeful about the fate of the two monuments.

While Trump's shrinking of the monument "disrespected Tribes, the land, and all those who love Bears Ears and Grand Staircase," he told Common Dreams Thursday he remains "hopeful that Secretary Haaland will recommend that Grand Staircase-Escalante be restored and that Bears Ears be expanded to match the vision of the 5 Tribes."

"Returning protections is important to prevent new uranium mining," he said, as well as "to restore and strengthen collaborative management between federal land managers and Indigenous nations."

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