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Biden to restore protections to three national monuments slashed by Trump

The Biden administration will restore environmental protections to three national monuments, including two in Utah and the only marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean, that were diminished dramatically by his predecessor Donald Trump. 

President Joe Biden is expected to announce Friday that his Department of the Interior will restore all of the 1.3 million acres to the Bears Ears National Monument plus slightly expanding its conservation footprint. Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument will be restored to its former size.. 

The administration is also expected to restore protections to the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, a marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New England that consists of underwater mountains and canyons. 

Bears Ears was dedicated in 2016 by then-President Barack Obama in one of his final acts as president, while Grand Staircase Escalante was dedicated by President Bill Clinton in 1996. Trump reduced the size of each monument, shrinking Bears Ears by about 85% and cutting Grand Staircase Escalante in half at the urging of local leaders who say the curtailment of natural resource extraction industries has hurt local economies and represents a federal incursion into local decision making.

The Biden administration's decision has conservative leaders in Utah irked. 

“​​We expected and hoped for closer collaboration between our state and national leaders, especially on matters that directly impact Utah and our citizens," a consortium of Utah leaders including Governor Spencer Cox, in a statement Thursday. “The president’s decision to enlarge the monuments again is a tragic missed opportunity — it fails to provide certainty as well as the funding for law enforcement, research, and other protections which the monuments need and which only Congressional action can offer.”

Trump ordered his first Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke to look at reducing monuments within his first weeks in office, prompting immediate backlash from environmentalists, paleontologists and Native tribes. 

Trump’s eventual decision was predicated on returning a sense of local control to communities in Utah. 

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“Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington,” Trump said at the time. “And guess what? They’re wrong.”

Likewsie, Biden promised to look at restoring protections on his first day in office. In June, his Interior Department Secretary, Deb Haaland, recommended restoring environmental protections to all of the land removed by Biden’s predecessor.

Haaland is the first Native American to head the Interior Department. Bears Ears is sacred to five different tribes that historically occupied the area in eastern Utah and contains petroglyphs, burial grounds and other elements that tribes consider culturally significant. 

The Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni all lay historical claims to the area. 

Hopi Chairman Timothy L. Nuvangyaoma told Indian Country Today, a Native news outlet, that the restoration of the monuments represented a “significant step” for indigenous tribes. “We do need to protect these sacred sites that not only the Hopi tribe but other tribes find significant within their history,” he said. 

Grand Staircase Escalante was cut in half in a manner that opened the possibility for mining a seam of high-quality coal, gaining the approbation of local industry players but earning the ire of environmentalists.

In Utah, federal ownership of public lands has long been opposed by the state’s congressional delegation.

Utah Senator Mitt Romney criticized Biden’s decision via Twitter on Thursday. 

“Yet again, Utah's national monuments are being used as a political football between administrations,” he wrote. “The decision to re-expand the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is a devastating blow to our state, local, and tribal leaders and our delegation.”

But the decision was celebrated by conservation organizations. 

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“Thank you, President Biden,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of Center for Western Priorities, in a statement. “You have listened to Indigenous tribes and the American people and ensured these landscapes will be protected for generations to come.”

Biden has made environmental conservation one of the central parts of his agenda pledging to conserve 30% of the nation’s land and water.

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James Watt/CC BY 2.0

Grosvenor Arch is a unique sandstone double arch located within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.