President Joe Biden on Friday re-expanded the boundaries of three national monuments that had been reduced in size under the Trump administration.
The re-expansion establishes protections for about 1.35 million acres of the Bears Ears and 1.87 million acres of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah, as well as 4,913 square miles (12,700 square kilometres) of waters and submerged lands off the New England coast.
“This may be the easiest thing I’ve ever done so far as president—I mean it,” Biden said at a White House ceremony attended by some Democratic lawmakers, tribal leaders, and environmentalists.
Former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, both Democrats, had established protections for the three sites under the Antiquities Act, a century-old law that gives presidents the authority to establish protections for sites considered important.
Trump had sought to allow activities that support local economies in the areas as part of his efforts to loosen regulations on industry. Such activities include ranching, drilling, mining, and commercial fishing.
The large boundaries declared as national monuments by previous Democrat administrations were a “massive land grab” that “should never have happened,” Trump had said in cutting the size of the two Utah monuments on Dec. 4, 2017. The reduction was about 2 million acres (809,372 hectares) in all, at the request of the state’s Republican leadership.
Specifically, Trump reduced the lands within the Bears Ears monument by about 85 percent, or more than 1.1 million acres, from when Obama established it in December 2016. He also reduced the size of the protected area at the Grand Staircase-Escalante by nearly half, or over 860,000 acres, from when Clinton established it in September 1996 and Congress over the years helped to expand its boundaries by adding another 180,000 acres.
Trump separately removed restrictions on commercial fishing for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument in the Atlantic Ocean, southeast of Cape Cod, on June 5, 2020.
Biden said Friday that the re-expansion of the boundaries “provide a bridge to our past, but they also build a bridge to a safer, more sustainable future—one where we strengthen our economy and pass on a healthy planet to our children and our grandchildren.”
He also said, “The protection of public lands must [not become] a pendulum that swings back and forth depending on who’s in public office.”
“It’s not a partisan issue,” Biden said. “And I want to thank the members of Congress who have come together to support this important conservation work.” He added later, “I spoke with both the senators from Utah. They were—they didn’t agree with what I was doing, but they were gracious and polite about it. And I appreciate that as well.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said in a statement that Biden had “squandered the opportunity to build consensus” and find a permanent, legislative solution for the monuments, which “would’ve brought certainty to and benefited all stakeholders.”
“Yet again, Utah’s national monuments are being used as a political football between administrations,” Romney said, adding that the re-expansion of the two sites’ boundaries is “a devastating blow to our state, local, and tribal leaders and our delegation.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said in a statement, “[The president] called signing these monument declarations the easiest thing he’s ever done. Unfortunately, to the countless Utahns whose livelihoods, communities, and property rights are discarded by these declarations, this is anything but easy.”
The two senators penned an op-ed with other co-authors published in Deseret News saying that giving vast areas of land federal oversight does not translate to effective conservation, asserting that declaring a proclamation “does not bring any new financial resources to the area.”
Giving the Bears Ears site as an example, they said that declaring a wide area of land as a national monument “actually causes more damage to the land by drawing a bull’s-eye for looters and countless tourists to find an area rich in Native American artifacts and antiquities to steal or damage, with effectively zero chance of being caught.”
“Furthermore, it fails to include the crucial input and involvement of local tribes in protecting and highlighting their own cultural heritage,” they wrote, adding, “The lands are overseen by bureaucrats thousands of miles away in Washington, and the very people whose lives are most affected—and who are in the best position to care for and manage the lands—are denied any say in the process.”
Utah Governor Spencer Cox said Thursday he and other Utah Republican officials were disappointed by Biden’s decision to expand the boundaries on the two sites. The officials said in a statement that they had for the past 10 months consistently offered to work with the Biden administration “on a permanent, legislative solution, one that would end the perpetual enlarging and shrinking of these monuments and bring certainty to their management.”
“Our goal has been to make lasting progress on managing our public lands for the benefit of all those who use them, particularly those who live on and near those lands,” they said, adding later, “We remain hopeful that a long-term solution will be reached in the future and that the exhausting policy instability over Utah’s public land can come to an end.”
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.