Tribes, Conservation and Recreation Groups, Outdoor Retailers, and Scientist Organizations File Challenges to President Trump’s Diminishment of Two Utah National Monuments

Tribes, Conservation and Recreation Groups, Outdoor Retailers, and Scientist Organizations File Challenges to President Trump’s Diminishment of Two Utah National Monuments

Carrie Doyle

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On December 4, 2017, President Trump reduced two national monuments in Utah by nearly 2 million acres combined.  The “Presidential Proclamation Modifying Bears Ears National Monument,” reduces the Bears Ears National Monument by 1,150,860 acres.  The President’s action “modif[ies]” the 1.35 million-acre Monument as designated by President Obama on December 28, 2016 to two non-contiguous Monument areas that together total approximately 200,000 acres.  The “Presidential Proclamation Modifying Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument,” reduces the 1.7 million-acre Monument as designated by President Clinton on September 18, 1996 by approximately 700,000 acres, leaving a diminished monument of approximately 1 million acres in size.

On the same day President Trump announced his decision, five Tribes with a connection to the Bears Ears lands filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.  Those tribes, the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and Zuni Tribe, each of which have demonstrated contemporary and historical connection to the Bears Ears lands, together established an Inter-Tribal Coalition in support of the 2016 Monument designation.  As part of the Bears Ears National Monument Proclamation, representatives from each of these five tribes participate on the Bears Ears Commission, which is intended to provide guidance and recommendations on the management of the Bears Ears National Monument and which, in its inclusion of tribes in the management of federal lands, is unprecedented.

On December 6, 2017, a second lawsuit was filed in the D.C. District Court by Utah Diné Bikéyah (which means “people’s sacred lands” in the Navajo language, is a non-profit organization established to provide support to the five Tribes in their efforts in support of the establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument), Friends of Cedar Mesa, Archaeology Southwest, Conservation Lands Foundation, Inc., Patagonia Works, The Access Fund, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.. 

On December 7, 2017, the Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Grand Canyon Trust, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Western Watersheds Project, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Wildearth Guardians, and Defenders of Wildlife filed a third Complaint, also in the D.C. District Court. 

The plaintiffs challenging the reduction of the Bears Ears National Monument represent a broad and unprecedented coalition of tribes, conservation groups, recreation groups, and scientific organizations.

Also on December 4, 2017, the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Grand Canyon Trust, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Western Watersheds Project, Wildearth Guardians, Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit in the D.C. District Court to challenge the diminishment of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. 

The lawsuits bring claims under the 1906 Antiquities Act alleging that the Act authorizes a President to designate federal public lands as national monuments, but not to later abolish lands designated as national monuments in whole or part.  In addition to other claims, the lawsuits also request injunctive relief against the relevant federal land-management agency heads (such as the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, the Director of the Bureau of Land Management, and the Chief of the United States Forest Service) alleging failure to carry out their mandatory duties of process and protection imposed by the Presidential Proclamations originally designating the monuments.

Both Proclamations diminishing the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments provide that the lands to be removed from the Monuments shall be open to entry and disposition under the mineral leasing and mining laws sixty days after the date of the Proclamations.  The Proclamations appear to immediately remove restrictions on motorized and non-motorized use and livestock grazing.  For these reasons, it seems likely that the Plaintiffs will move for injunctive relief to prevent the diminishments from taking effect until the claims in the lawsuits are fully resolved.