President Joe Biden signed an executive order today restoring Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments after former President Donald Trump rescinded the original designations in 2017. Trump’s rescissions had reduced Bears Ears by approximately 85% and Grand Staircase by almost 50%. Biden also reinstated protections in Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument after Trump’s 2020 decision to open it to commercial fishing. Bears Ears NM was originally designated at 1.35 million acres by President Barack Obama in 2016, and Grand Staircase was set at 1.9 million acres by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
Biden’s decision has been widely anticipated because of his election-campaign promise to restore the monuments. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland submitted her confidential report to the president in early June following her visit to Utah.
“This may be the easiest thing I’ve ever done so far, as president. I’m serious,” Biden said at the gathering outside the White House, which was livestreamed on the White House website. “Protection of public lands must not become a pendulum that swings back and forth depending who is in public office,” he added.
The president pointed out that “Bears Ears…is the first national monument in the country to be established at the request of federally recognized tribes.”
Those lands in Utah hold cultural and spiritual significance for at least five Indigenous tribes, members of which have spearheaded the effort to protect Bears Ears since 2010 under the banner of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition; those tribes are the Hopi, Zuni, Dine, Ute Mountain Ute, and Uintah Ouray Ute. A statement from Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition posted on October 7, reads:
By taking this action, President Biden will be recognizing the deep and enduring ancestral and cultural connections that Tribes have to this landscape and taking a step toward honoring his commitment to Indigenous People by acknowledging their original place in this country that is now our shared home.
The Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition looks forward to the President’s continued leadership in ensuring that a new model of collaborative management between the Tribes, state and federal land agencies is immediately put into action and that a comprehensive Land Management Plan can be developed for the greater Bears Ears landscape. In this new model, the traditional knowledge and place-based conservation strategies of Tribal communities will play a significant role in shaping efforts to conserve and plan a resilient future for this landscape that we all hold dear.
As a member of the Laguna Pueblo, Haaland is the first Indigenous person to take a seat as a member of the United States Cabinet. The Guardian quoted her following a tour of Bears Ears National Monument: “There are some pretty amazing ruins there, and you know, I don’t even like to call them ruins…because in our culture, in Pueblo culture, if you acknowledge our ancestors, they are there. The spirit of the people never leaves.”
The Utah monuments are also a huge draw for climbers who travel from around the world to experience the wild desert towers and splitter cracks that have made places such as Indian Creek famous. It is through that mutual interest in protecting the land that the Access Fund, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the access and protection of climbing areas, came to work with the Bears Ears Coalition starting in 2015.
Erik Murdock, Access Fund vice president of policy and government affairs, told Alpinist that the organization had received an invitation on short notice to have Executive Director Chris Winter attend Biden’s signing of the proclamation at the White House. Winter was already traveling at the time and had to scramble to buy a suit because he did not have one with him.
“This will be the first time the President of the United States has personally invited Access Fund to the White House!” Murdock said.
Winter is quoted in a statement from Access Fund that was posted October 7: “We are absolutely elated that President Biden stood up to protect Bears Ears National Monument and conserve this national treasure. This is a huge win for Indigenous people in the greater fight for America’s public lands. This proclamation not only protects climbing and the vast cultural and scientific resources at Bears Ears, but it also helps to uphold the integrity of the Antiquities Act and protects all national monuments around the country. It also recognizes the importance of outdoor recreation in these places.”
The statement then quotes Access Fund Native Lands Coordinator Aaron Mike: “Together, climbers and Native American tribes advocated for Bears Ears National Monument, and we are thrilled that President Biden has corrected course on the prior administration’s shortsighted and harmful decision to disrespect the traditional values and origin stories of multiple tribes.”
Additional advocacy groups such as the American Alpine Club, Friends of Cedar Mesa, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and several others have also been part of the effort. Following Trump’s executive order in 2017, multiple lawsuits were initiated to reverse the decision, with the tribes leading the way. Since the 2020 election those suits have been put on hold in anticipation of Biden’s decision that was announced today.
The tide of the legal battle may have changed course but it will continue. The people who support Trump’s rescissions, especially the industrial interest groups, as well as Utah legislators who have been arguing against Grand Staircase since 1996, are predicted to press their case in the courts.
“As a matter of courtesy I spoke with both the Senators from Utah,” Biden said. “They didn’t agree with what I was doing but they were gracious and polite about it, and I appreciate that as well.”
“Today our children are three times more likely to see climate disasters uproot and unsettle their lives than their grandparents’ generation,” Biden continued. “When we protect and care for our forest…we’re safeguarding water sources, and lessening the impact of fires. We’re protecting wetlands. We’re not only saving birds and fish and the livelihoods of people who depend on them, we’re also shoring up the natural defenses to absorb the fury of hurricanes and super storms.”
The president closed his speech with a quote from Edward Abby, who lived for a time in what is now Arches National Park in Utah, very close to what is now Bears Ears National Monument: “‘This is the most beautiful place on Earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary,'” Biden recited. “Folks, that’s America. This is just one more step in doing what other presidents have done, starting with Teddy Roosevelt.”