On management of Utah public lands, Biden should pursue an accountable legislative process
On March 22, 2021, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that: “The creation of a national monument is of no small consequence.” We agree, as would all those who have argued for, or against, such designations. Monument decisions immediately impact ranching, energy, and recreation industries, in addition to local and tribal governments who rely on the land for their livelihoods. In fact, many of our friends and neighbors are still bitterly divided over the creation of some of Utah’s biggest monuments. The Chief Justice is signaling a willingness to reconsider the status quo, and we should too.
We are once again united — this time in asking the Biden administration to work with us. There is an opportunity to find a permanent legislative solution to this problem at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, rather than repeating – and possibly worsening — the mistakes of the past. America’s citizens, tribal governments, communities, and industries should not be pawns in a political game. Decisions about these issues belong in the halls of Congress, where elected representatives have an opportunity to debate on behalf of their constituents. United as the Utah delegation, we strongly support Congress making these decisions because legislation is the only way to give a voice to all stakeholders.
While the chief justice went on to explain that the Court had declined to review the case in question — Massachusetts Lobstermen v. Raimondo — his comments resonate with a question on our minds: why is it a good idea to allow the Antiquities Act (a century-old statute whose authors grossly underestimated its potential for abuse) to treat entire states like pawns on a political chess board?
We do not believe that anyone, even a president, should be empowered to unilaterally create overreaching national monuments, instantly limiting access to resources upon which local economies depend.
In 1996, President Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Utah’s governor, federal delegation, and the overwhelming majority of our citizens were firmly united in opposition to the monument. It didn’t matter. Ignoring this resistance entirely, President Clinton made the official announcement from Arizona. With an out-of-state photo op and the simple stroke of a pen, 1.8 million acres of productive land were immediately transformed into a national monument. President Clinton moved on to his next event, and the media cycle progressed. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Utah’s wound has not healed.
In 2016, President Obama swept another 1.3 million acres into a new monument. This time, the Bears Ears national monument locked up invaluable land in Southeastern Utah. Once again, Utah’s governor and federal delegation were united in opposition to the move. Once again, thanks to the Antiquities Act, it didn’t make a difference. A staggering swath of land — totaling roughly the size of Delaware — had been placed in a restrictive status, all by the stroke of an executive pen and without critical local input.
Nearly a year after taking office, President Trump travelled to Utah and made a dramatic announcement: He would reduce the boundaries of both monuments to return large tracts of land to less restrictive management. For the past three years, the land management agencies have written and implemented new management plans aligned with the smaller monuments.
Then, on President Biden’s first day in office, he announced that the Department of Interior would be reviewing the boundary changes made by President Trump. If expanded unilaterally instead of with legislation, this would perpetuate the cycle of divisiveness, ultimately creating uncertainty for the land and all those who care about it.
Few states have experienced this kind of whiplash because only a few Western states have large tracts of public lands like Utah, which is 67 percent federally managed.
Several tribal governments felt cut out of the reduction process, just like the majority of Utahns felt when both national monuments were created by Presidents Obama and Clinton. This highlights the inherent divisiveness of the Antiquities Act and proves the only way to end this “ping ponging” is through permanent legislation passed by Congress.
Legal challenges to the creation of national monuments have yet to be successful. As a result, states like Utah have had far too few options for protecting their public land from presidents who get generous support from environmental groups.
Chief Justice Roberts’ words, written in regard to a marine monument off the East Coast, resonated out West. They are giving hope to many who have felt voiceless and powerless on an issue that greatly impacts our state. For decades, politicians, environmental groups, and recreation interests have operated under the assumption that presidents didn’t need to exercise restraint when creating national monuments. Even worse, it seems they’ve been operating under the assumption that there should be no consequences to doing so.
Right now, we have a chance to right these wrongs. Chief Justice Roberts’s words highlight the sensibility of this opportunity. The Biden administration is currently deciding whether to expand national monument boundaries in our state, yet again — over the unified objections of the state, yet again. Now is the time to return to limiting the Antiquities Act designations to the smallest parcel necessary to protect antiquities, as intended, and providing our state a voice. Let’s leave the landscape national monument decisions to Congress who can solicit input, consensus, and resources in a way no president could.
We are asking the Biden administration, tribes, conservation interests, local interests, and multiple users of public land to join us in deciding the best way to manage Utah’s public lands: Through an accountable and involved legislative process.
Mitt Romney is the junior senator from Utah, Mike Lee is the senior senator from Utah, Chris Stewart represents Utah’s 2nd District, Burgess Owens represents Utah’s 4th District, John Curtis represents Utah’s 3rd District and Blake Moore represents Utah’s 1st District.