By SAM METZ and BRADY McCOMBS
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The state of Utah and two rural, Republican-leaning counties sued the Biden administration on Wednesday over the president’s decision last year to restore two sprawling national monuments on rugged lands sacred to people. Native Americans that former President Donald Trump had reduced.
The lawsuit over Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, the two landmarks in southeastern Utah, alleges President Joe Biden’s action violates authority granted by a century-old law that allows presidents to protect sites considered as historically, geographically or culturally significant.
The monuments, which together are nearly the size of Connecticut, contain canyons ringed by pink ribbons of limestone, dramatic red rock mesas and buttes, juniper forests, and Native American artifacts including ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.
The arguments made in the lawsuit have been repeated for years by Republicans in court and in campaign speeches. The legal challenge from Utah and right-wing counties has been expected since Biden made the decision in October 2021, when he called Bears Ears a “place of reverence and a sacred homeland for hundreds of generations of Native people.” . It’s the latest twist in a debate that has spanned years and spanned three presidential administrations.
In a joint statement Wednesday, Gov. Spencer Cox and the entire Utah congressional delegation accused the federal government of mismanaging the land and blamed the expanded monuments for “unmanageable levels of visitation.”
“We now challenge this overreach and abuse of the federal government to ensure that our public lands are adequately protected and that smart stewardship remains with those closest to the land,” said the group, whose signatories included American senses Mitt Romney and Mike Lee.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday afternoon that the administration had not commented on the lawsuit.
Public lands and how they are managed often become politically contentious in rural western states, pitting Republican-leaning ranching communities against each other skeptical of the federal government’s overreach against conservationists and tribes. who argue that strong federal protections are needed as a bulwark against development or industries like mining or logging.
The part of southeastern Utah where the two monuments are located has been at the center of some of the most heated debates over land management since President Bill Clinton designated Grand Staircase a national monument in 1996.
Bears Ears, which was designated a national monument by President Barack Obama, is unique because land management decisions are made by a commission led jointly by federal agency officials and representatives from five tribal nations. The commission was reinstated last June, five years later, and an Obama-era joint governance plan was scrapped when the Trump administration downsized the monuments in 2017.
This decision opened up parts of the monuments to mining, drilling and other development. Weak demand and high production costs have led to minimal interest from energy companies in land that became unprotected when Trump cut monuments, including a large coal stash found in the Grand Staircase or D uranium on cut land in Bears Ears.
“President Biden made no attempt to explain how 3.23 million acres constituted the ‘smallest area consistent with the proper care and management’ of these supposed monuments,” the lawsuit alleges, citing the law of 1906 on Antiquities describing the rules for designating national monuments.
Two southern Utah counties, Kane and Garfield, joined the lawsuit.
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.