Judge dismisses Utah lawsuit challenging monuments, AG will appeal

Aug 11, 2023, 1:58 PM | Updated: Aug 15, 2023, 10:16 am

Image of a sunrise from Muley Point on Cedar Mesa, within the boundaries of Bears Ears National Mon...

A winter sunrise from Muley Point on Cedar Mesa, within the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. (Dave Cawley)

(Dave Cawley)

SALT LAKE CITY — A United States District Judge for the District of Utah has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the state of Utah which challenged President Joe Biden’s authority to re-establish Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. 

In his ruling, Judge David Nuffer dismissed the suits “with prejudice,” concluding President Biden’s proclamation “is within presidential authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 and that the state of Utah has no claim to overstep that authority.

“This was a 28-page ruling,” said KSL Legal Analyst Greg Skordas. “And he goes through, really, a lot of analysis of what the president’s authority is … some states have said ‘you need to limit what you’re doing, Mr. President, you can’t just designate these huge swaths of land.’

“But the judge today said, he’s got that right.”


Utah leaders will appeal

On Friday afternoon a representative from the Utah Attorney General’s office told KSL that the AG will appeal.

“The Attorney General’s Office respectfully but strongly disagrees with the court’s order on the Monuments case today,” a statement read.

“We will appeal the dismissal in order to stand up against President Biden’s egregious abuse of the Antiquities Act.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox also came out against today’s ruling by Judge Nuffer.

“This case will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court and today’s ruling helps us get there even sooner. The clear language of the law gives the president the authority only to designate monuments that are ‘the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.’

Monument designations over a million acres are clearly outside that authority and end up ignoring local concerns and damaging the very resources we want to protect. We look forward to starting the appeals process immediately and will continue fighting this type of glaring misuse of the Antiquities Act.”


Support for the ruling

Environmental groups supported Friday’s ruling by Judge Nuffer, citing the unique nature of the land in question and what they called historical precedent for monument designation.

“Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments are two of the most significant, intact, and extraordinary public landscapes in America,” wrote the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“Landscapes that will remain protected after today’s dismissal of these lawsuits. We are thrilled with today’s decision, which aligns with more than 100 years of similar court rulings that have rejected every challenge to Presidential authority under the Antiquities Act to protect cultural, scientific, ecological, and paleontological resources on public lands.”


Earthjustice, self-defined as a nonprofit public interest environmental law organization, said Friday’s decision followed precedent and other rulings which favored a president’s authority to establish monuments under the  Antiquities Act.

“Today’s result is another in a series of decisions that upholds a president’s authority to designate national monuments to protect important and vulnerable lands for the benefit of current and future generations,” said Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office.

“Utah put forth a flawed argument that sought to eviscerate the Antiquities Act, but like others before them, they have failed to do so. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante protected these wonders from oil and gas drilling, mining, and other destructive uses. We are thrilled that the Court agreed and upheld President Biden’s restoration of these monuments.”

The monuments and Indigenous connections to the land

The Bears Ears National Monument reportedly contains 100,000 cultural and archeological sites that are sacred to multiple Indigenous tribes across the American South and West. The Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nations, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the Pueblo of Zuni filed motions to intervene in late 2022, citing a personal stake in the outcome of the lawsuits filed by Utah officials. 

Some of their representatives said that Friday’s dismissal is a victory toward protecting culturally significant lands.

The Bears Ears area (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) The House on Fire ruins are pictured in the Shash Jaa Unit of Bears Ears National Monument (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) (Friends of Cedar Mesa) (Mike DeBernardo, Deseret News) (Friends of Cedar Mesa, via the Deseret News) Indian ruins sitting beneath the top rock, found in Mule Canyon near Blanding. (Stacie Scott, Deseret News) The Bears Ears area as seen from Comb Ridge in southern Utah. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Butler Wash Ruins, Bears Ears National Monument  (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Further, the executive director of Utah Dine Bikeyah, Woody Lee, said the dismissal was an opportunity for opposing sides to come together.

“We are extremely happy with the decision on behalf of both sides,” Lee told KSL NewsRadio. “Now that we understand how both sides feel … moving forward, we’re all going to be staying here on Mother Earth. So we may as well join together an live as neighbors.

“I think the decision tells us that any of our ethnic backgrounds, whoever they are … our past cannot be erased or destroyed.”


History of Utah lawsuit against Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments

The lawsuit was filed nearly one year ago. It argued that “the size of the two national monuments … violates the Antiquities Act of 1906.” Namely, the Utah lawsuit argued the Antiquities Act, while allowing a U.S. president to create monuments, also calls for those monuments to be “confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

Currently, Bears Ears National Monument, located in Utah’s San Juan County, encompasses 1,351,849 million acres of public land. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument stretches between Utah’s Kane and Garfield counties and represents 1,880,461 acres of public land. 

President Barack Obama established Bears Ears National Monument in 2016. In 2017, President Trump reduced it in size by 85%. President Biden restored Bears Ears to its original size in 2021.

President Bill Clinton established Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. Then, President Donald Trump reduced it in 2017. President Joe Biden restored it in 2021.


Contributing: Jessica Lowell and Jeff Caplan.

Our previous reporting:

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Judge dismisses Utah lawsuit challenging monuments, AG will appeal