OUTDOORS + RECREATION

Utah Attorney General announces second challenge to national monuments

Nov 1, 2023, 9:59 AM | Updated: 10:08 pm

The Bears Ears area as seen from Comb Ridge in southern Utah....

The Bears Ears area as seen from Comb Ridge in southern Utah. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — The State of Utah is returning to federal court to challenge President Biden’s designation of two national monuments. The lawsuit was filed in the United States Court of Appeals on Tuesday, according to a press release from Attorney General Sean Reyes’ office. 

The initial challenge filed by Reyes was dismissed in August 2023. 

Reyes’ argument said that the size of the monuments violates the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows presidents to create national monuments. According to the initial filing of the lawsuit, the large size of the two monuments makes maintaining them “unmanageable.”

The Antiquities Act also protects “cultural and natural resources of historic or scientific interest on federal lands.” 

KSL Legal Analyst Greg Skordas said that according to the lawsuit, there isn’t anything historic or scientific on the lands to protect, unlike the great geysers in Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon.

“And I’m not trying to say anything denigrating about Bears Ears, and Grand Staircase, they’re beautiful,” he said.

“But the argument the state’s making is, they’re like any other beautiful prairie or forest that we have all over our country, we don’t need to set these aside,” Skordas said.

A game of political football over national monuments

The battle over these designations began in 1996 when former President Bill Clinton set aside 1.7 million acres to found Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Former President Barack Obama’s designation of Bears Ears National Monument included 1.35 million acres. 

In 2017, former President Donald Trump reduced the size of the two monuments. He said the reason was “to reverse federal overreach and restore the rights of this land to your citizens.”

President Joe Biden restored the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante in 2021. 

The political football over these monuments has led to a lot of attention and some unintended consequences.

“What some of the locals down there are saying is that these lands are now in worse shape,” Skordas said.

“That’s because there isn’t enough infrastructure at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase for visitors. There aren’t roads or visitor centers for people to get to the monuments. 

“People are now just sort of going in there and trashing it, which is ironic because we’re setting it aside so that exactly doesn’t happen,” Skordas said.

A statement from Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, affirms Skordas’ assertion.

“What the public doesn’t realize is larger monuments make it much harder to protect sacred areas and objects,” Reyes said in a statement.

“These designations require resources, planning, and input from stakeholders and all those affected. D.C. is not listening to the realities of management, safety, and other local issues.”

The challenge reissued by Utah officials says the combined size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, which is 3.2 million acres, violates the Antiquities Act of 1906.

Mariah Maynes and Kristine Weller contributed to this article.

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Utah Attorney General announces second challenge to national monuments