Last week, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, former Democratic representative for New Mexico, visited Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in southeastern Utah. The third Interior Secretary to consider the monuments’ boundaries, long a subject of controversy in the region, Haaland will advise the Biden administration’s review of the monuments, their boundaries and future management.
“This has been a special trip, and I deeply appreciate the many people who took time to share their wisdom, perspectives, and prayers with me,” said Secretary Haaland in a statement released by the Department of the Interior. “How we manage public lands and national monuments is important – not just to the Tribes and ranchers and elected leaders and others who I met with this week, but to the many generations to come. I look forward to sharing what I heard and saw with President Biden so he has the benefit of these perspectives as we chart a path forward on the stewardship of these incredible culturally rich places.”
During his campaign for president, Biden stated his intent to restore both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments to their original 1.3 million and 1.9 million acres, respectively, to reach his goal of protecting 30% of America’s land and water by 2030.
During her three-day trip to Utah, Haaland met with tribal leaders, local elected officials and other stakeholders concerned with the designated boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. She received briefings from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service at each monument. Haaland also visited the Edge of Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding and the Bears Ears Education Center in Bluff, where she learned more about the national monument, its cultural artifacts and the cultural landscapes it preserves. Dr. Alan Titus, a BLM paleontologist, also showed the secretary fossils from Grand Staircase-Escalante.
“I am humbled by the hospitality that was shown to me this week. In particular, the hardworking career professionals at the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service went above and beyond, especially given the pandemic-related restrictions of our visit,” said Haaland. “I am grateful to know they are here to manage these lands.”
While hiking throughout Bears Ears on Thursday, Haaland met with several tribal representatives, who voiced their peoples’ connections to the land and their desire to see it protected. Among these representatives were Ute Mountain Ute Tribe White Mesa Representative Malcom Lehi, Hopi Tribe Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva and Pueblo of Zuni Lieutenant Governor Carleton Bowekaty. They toured pictographs, cliff dwellings and other sacred sites both within and without the boundaries Trump set in 2017.
On Friday, Haaland traveled to Kanab, Utah to spend time in Grand Staircase-Escalante. She met with members of the Kane County Commission, Garfield County Commission and Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, a conservation group focused on preserving the area’s scientific value.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Hendreson, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Rep. Blake Moore (R-UT) joined Haaland in Bears Ears. She held a series of town hall sessions with residents of Kane and San Juan Counties, where she heard local input from elected leaders, ranchers, business owners, conservationists, mining companies, outdoor recreation stakeholders, archaeologists, paleontologists and more. Rep. Burgess Owens (R-UT), Rep. John Curtis (R-UT), Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) also attended these talks.
Utah’s congressional delegation along with the governor, lieutenant governor, Attorney General Sean Reyes, Senate President Stuart Adams and Speaker of the House Brad Wilson released a joint statement following Haaland’s visit. As a collective, they have advocated for a legislative solution to the national monuments’ boundary controversy, rather than unilateral executive action.
“We reiterated our desire to find a permanent legislative solution, which we believe is the only path to finally resolving the longstanding dispute over the monuments’ boundaries and management,” the statement reads. “If the Administration decides to act unilaterally, a legislative solution that provides certainty will be nearly impossible to achieve. And without protections against the Antiquities Act, Utah is left vulnerable to the whim of future presidents.”
The Antiquities Act was passed in 1906 under the Roosevelt administration and gives the president the authority to create national monuments, which are protected from mining, drilling, logging, grazing and other environmentally hazardous activities.
“There are better ways to take these shared landscapes and preserve them for generations to come and to honor the spirit of the people who have been here before and the people who are here now,” said Cox at a Thursday press briefing with Haaland. “All of those things can only be done through legislation.”
As part of longstanding political opposition to federal land management, state politicians have voiced their concerns that such monuments are too large and that the large tracts of federally protected land take away job opportunities and harm local economies.
“We appreciate Secretary Haaland’s visit and thank her and her team for taking time to meet with us and with state, local, and tribal leaders as part of the ongoing review of these monuments,” the statement continued. “We continue to urge the Administration to work with us to craft a collaborative, consensus plan that reflects the input of the people most directly impacted and ends the political back-and-forth that our communities have been subjected to for more than 25 years.”
Many speculate that Haaland will advise Biden to restore both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante to their original acreage, given her political background. In 2019, she sponsored a bill that would have returned Bears Ears to its initial 1.9 million acres. Another option for Biden would be to expand the monuments but have them smaller than their original boundaries, but tribal leaders and conservationists have stressed the cultural and natural landscapes at risk if the land is not protected fully. Looting, desecration and damage to the land have increased since the monuments were minimized four years ago.
Haaland, who is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, will write a report for President Biden including her findings and conclusions from her Utah visit and recommending tweaks to his potential executive order.
“My job is to listen, to learn, to report back to the president of every single voice that I have heard on this trip to make sure that he has all the information he needs to make a decision,” said Haaland to an audience on Thursday in Blanding. “It’s important that the president get this right.”