Five lawsuits have been filed against President Trump’s executive decision to dramatically scale back the boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments in southeast Utah.
The Bears Ears National Monument (BENM) received its official designation from the Obama administration on Dec. 28, 2016, in the final weeks of former President Obama’s term. The executive order brought national public attention to a debate between the Native Americans and environmentalists eager to preserve the land, and the Utah politicians working to pass a bill that would enable landowners to capitalize on natural resources.
Nearly one year later, Dec. 4, 2017, President Trump undid the binds of that protective designation with a proclamation that he planned to minimize the BENM and Grand Stair Escalante National Monument by 70 to 90 percent.
“I’ve come to Utah to take a very historic action to reverse federal overreach and restore the rights of this land to your citizens,” President Trump said during his speech in Salt Lake City.
This historic action is the grounds by which the plaintiffs are suing; since its creation in 1910, the Antiquities Act, used to create this national monument, has never been met with an executive action to reverse it.
The disputed land is considered sacred to five different native tribes – the Navajo Nation, Hopi, Ute, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Mountain Ute. While these tribes live separately, all value the Bears Ears region as a system of canyons and hills rich with cultural artifacts such as Puebloan cliff dwellings three and a half centuries old.
In 2016, these five tribes joined together to solicit the support of former President Obama in establishment of further federal protection of the area. Over the last five years, at least two dozen looting incidents occurred in the indigenous ruins of the region, including tampering with a kiva and removal of a petroglyph by means of a rock saw, according to the Washington Post.
Under the designation of a monument, 1.35 million acres receive additional patrolling as well as protection against natural resource drilling that would alter condition of the region. While the individual sites are protected from development and destruction, the integrity of the land as a whole depends on the illegality of road development, oil mining, and recreation that erodes the land.
The Navajo Nation, which accounts for the majority of the Native American population in San Juan County, was the first tribe to file a lawsuit on Dec. 5, 2017, following the action of President Trump. They petitioned against the decision, which Trump stated would benefit the Native Americans and their desire to protect indigenous land.
“The decision to reduce the size of the Monument is being made with no tribal consultation,” Navajo Nation President Russel Begaye wrote in a statement printed in the Navajo Hopi News. “The Navajo Nation will defend Bears Ears. The reduction in the size of the Monument leaves us no choice but to litigate this decision.”
One day later, California-based outdoor merchandise brand Patagonia filed a separate lawsuit in conjunction with several environmental activism groups. Their enthusiastic protest and decision to take legal action has separated them from the pack as many outdoor retail brands responded with disappointment to President Trump’s action.
Patagonia has been vocal in campaigning for the protection of monument land since Utah politicians reacted with vehement disapproval of former President Obama’s largest monument designation in the last days of 2016.
Across social platforms and the brand’s own retail website, Patagonia lobbied throughout 2017 against alterations of the protected land boundaries with 360-degree video and online petitions. Much of their audience, a community of outdoor sports enthusiasts, were connected to the region due to its quality rock climbing in the Indian Creek region of the former BENM boundaries.
In immediate reaction to the decree signed by President Trump on Dec. 4, Patagonia voiced opposition with the viral slogan, “The President Stole Your Land.”
United States Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke responded to the high-profile slogan in an interview broadcast on Fox and Friends, arguing that the executive action had just the opposite effect, as it protected the needs of ranching families and landowners in the region.
“We need to make sure we’re actively managing our lands,” Zinke said. “Public use is important, and our land is for the benefit and enjoyment of the people and not special interest groups.”
In June 2017, Zinke submitted a memorandum to the President to report on the potential land use opportunities in San Juan County. This report offered analysis of the Antiquities Act and its place in management of the land under review. Specifically, Zinke advised that the designated 1.3 million acres was more than the smallest necessary designation to protect sites of particular cultural and natural importance.
“I recommend that … The BENM boundary be revised through the use of appropriate authority, including lawful exercise of the President’s authority granted by the Act,” Zinke wrote.
Zinke also advised that the Native Tribes Coalition be included as co-managers of the monument land, voicing that this reduction of BENM would be in the best interest of the tribes.
As President Trump now faces litigation from the tribal coalition, the majority consensus of the Native American community in San Juan County lays in disagreement.
Five separate legal complaints have now been submitted to the federal courts, most of which have been assigned to Judge Tanya Chutkan.
Advocacy organizations including the Conservation Lands Foundation, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Archeology Southwest, and Grand Staircase Escalante Partners are involved in this legal battle. Many believe that the results will impact the Antiquities Act first created by Theodore Roosevelt and change the way that government is able to manage and alter designated monument land in the United States.
The threat to those monuments is what drives recreational sport advocacy groups such as Access Fund into legal partnership with Patagonia, Policy Director Erik Murdoch told the Cortez Sun Journal.
“We believe this battle is critical for the fight for public lands in general – that’s why we’re going all in on this.”