Game of Political Football Continues Over Utah Monuments

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah. — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox issued a statement yesterday calling President Joe Biden’s executive order to review the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments an act of “political football.”

The executive order is the latest chapter in an ongoing dispute over protection of millions of acres of Utah land.

In Dec. 2016, Bears Ears was declared a national monument by then-President Barack Obama, and 1.35 million acres were federally protected. In 2017, President Trump captured the ball and reduced that to 228,784 acres, according to the National Park Service, which lists the land calculations history of national monuments. Separately, 1.7 million acres of land in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was protected in 1996 by former President Bill Clinton proclaimed it a national monument; in 2017 President Trump responded with a tackle on those protections, shrinking it to 700,000 acres.

Biden called for a consultation among the Secretary of the Interior, the Attorney General of the United States, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Commerce, the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, and Tribal governments, to review and ‘determine whether restoration of the monument boundaries and conditions that existed as of January 20, 2017, would be appropriate.’

President Biden’s executive order was not well-received by the Utah congressional delegation.

Cox’s statement pointed out that “Roughly two-thirds of our backyard belongs to the federal government, which has meant land management actions have often been done to us rather than with us.”

Biden’s choice for Secretary of the Interior, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., would review decisions on how to proceed on protections for the monuments. Utahns and public lands advocates can contact Utah state representatives and senators and share their opinions about whether the land should maintain a reduced monument or be restored to its originally protected acreage.

From tourism, ranching, and paleontology, to Mormon history and landmarks, Grand Staircase-Escalante serves multiple purposes. It is currently under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Bears Ears National Monument, known for the pair of buttes that resemble the ears of a bear, is also under BLM control and is a rich area for cultural, historic, and natural resources.

The shrinking and expansion of these lands has been debated for years. An episode on the Dirtbag Diaries podcast, “Endangered Spaces — GrandStaircase-Escalante National Monument,” highlights contentions about this landscape. Adjunct producer of the podcast Jen Altschul described the episode’s road trip to Boulder, Utah as an effort to “capture a snapshot of a community thrust into a fight they did not choose. A fight they may have little influence over. And a fight about how to protect public lands and who decides. The outcome of that fight will have lasting implications not just for Boulder, but to all communities who rely on public lands.”

The ultimate fate and size of these monuments will likely not be known anytime soon.

Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm, a popular restaurant in Boulder near Grand Staircase-Escalante, celebrated President Biden’s executive order on Facebook:

Gov. Cox and the Utah congressional delegation shared less enthusiasm:

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