Lawmakers want to restrict presidential power to create monuments in Utah

Sep 15, 2023, 11:48 AM | Updated: 12:25 pm

The Bears Ears area (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)...

The Bears Ears area (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Listen at 1:05 p.m.: Sen. Mike Lee shares his thoughts on the bill seeking to limit the presidential power to create national monuments

WASHINGTON, D.C.– Utah Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah and Mitt Romney, R-Utah as well as Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah are sponsoring a new bill that would limit the president’s ability to designate national monuments.

Joining them as sponsors are Sen. Ted Cruz R-TX and Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, M.D., R-IA.

In an emailed press release, Lee said the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives presidents power to create monuments, “has been a tool to protect archaeological resources on public lands.” However, he said the Act’s “broad language” has also allowed presidents to “unilaterally” establish these protected lands with little buy-in from local leaders and residents.

“It is abundantly clear Congress must prevent more abuses by the Antiquities Act that go against the will of impacted communities,” Curtis said in the release. “This legislation will ensure proper accountability and sustainability of our shared lands.”

A decades-long battle over monuments in Utah

The battle over public lands in Utah has grown more intense over the last three presidential administrations. In 2016, President Barack Obama established nearly 1.4 million acres of southern Utah land as the Bears Ears National Monument. President Obama called it sacred land to the “Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, Hopi Nation, and Zuni Tribe.”  He cited the ancient artifacts as a reason to protect it from most mining and drilling operations.

Native tribes rejoiced but elected Utah leaders complained.

The next year, President Donald Trump visited Utah’s capitol to sign a proclamation reversing the Bears Ears designation, as well as 85% of the Grand Staircase Escalante national monument.

Utah’s senators and republican Gov. Spencer Cox joined Trump on stage when he announced he had come to Utah “to reverse federal overreach and restore the rights of this land to your citizens.” It was a 3.2 million acre rollback, the largest in the nation’s history, according to the New York Times.

The political winds shifted again, and President Joe Biden restored Bears Ears to its original size in October 2021.

Native leaders celebrated Biden’s proclamation to restore the 3.2 million acres Trump had rolled back. “I prayed for the longest time, thanking the holy people that we’re going to preserve the beautiful land of Bears Ears,” said Utah Diné Bikéyah Board Founder Kenneth Maryboy.

The lawsuit and the bill

On the other end of the spectrum,  Cox and Attorney General Sean Reyes quickly filed a lawsuit attempting to reverse the restoration.  A federal judge threw out their case on August 11 this year. But the governor and attorney general said in separate statements that they would appeal.

“This case will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court and today’s ruling helps us get there even sooner,” Gov. Cox said.

The new bill by Utah’s two senators and Congressman Curtis comes just a month after a judge ruled that restoring Bears Ears was within the bounds of the Antiquities Act of 1906. Bill sponsor and Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks said in the press release that it’s time to change the text of the Act to deprioritize the Executive Branch and empower the Legislative Branch.

“The Congressional Oversight of the Antiquities Act would curb executive overreach and require the administration to consult Congress before making rash decisions about our federal lands.”


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Lawmakers want to restrict presidential power to create monuments in Utah