Petroglyphs in Bears Ears. (Photo: BLM)
Indefinitely Wild

Biden Restores Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments

Three days before Indigenous People’s Day, President Biden reversed the largest attack on public lands in recent history


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Today, President Biden announced that he’s restoring the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments in Utah, as well as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in the Atlantic Ocean to the areas and protections that were in place before Donald Trump massively cut them. The move fulfills a campaign promise, protects sensitive historic sites and fragile ecosystems, preserves air and water quality for local communities, keeps coal and oil in the ground, and listens to the voice of Indigenous people on the eve of Indigenous People’s Day. 

“By taking this action, President Biden will be recognizing the deep and enduring ancestral and cultural connections that Tribes have to this landscape and taking a step toward honoring his commitment to Indigenous People by acknowledging their original place in this country that is now our shared home,” reads a statement from the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. 

Bears Ears was first designated a national monument by President Obama in 2016, following decades of grass roots activism by local tribes, and environmental organizations. The area contains over 100,000 archeological sites—some dating back as far as 13,000 years—and the buttes that give it its name are considered sacred by local people. Obama used the Antiquities Act to protect a 1.35 million acre portion, which was reduced to 228,000 acres, split across two parcels, by Trump in 2017 in order to open the area up to resource extraction. Today, President Biden is restoring the monument to its original size, and incorporating an 11,200-acre section created by Trump, which will make Bears Ears a total of 1.36 million acres. 

“The historical connection between Indigenous peoples and Bears Ears is undeniable; our Native American ancestors sustained themselves on the landscape since time immemorial and evidence of their rich lives is everywhere one looks,” says secretary of the interior Deb Haaland in a press release. “This living landscape must be protected so that all Americans have the profound opportunity to learn and cherish our history.”

“By taking this action, President Biden will be recognizing the deep and enduring ancestral and cultural connections that tribes have to this landscape.”

The 1.87 million acre Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument was created by President Clinton in 1996. It contains unique geological features, vast swaths of fossils and other objects of paleontological interest, and sites of historic importance to both Indigenous people and early Latter-Day Saint pioneers, as well as unique, important, and fragile ecosystems. Trump cut the monument’s size in half in 2017 to open it up for coal mining. Today, Biden is restoring the monument to its original boundaries. 

“Conserving America’s national treasures plays an integral role in the Biden-Harris Administration’s whole-of-government approach to tackling the climate crisis and sustaining the health of our communities,” says national climate adviser Gina McCarthy in a press release. “For generations to come, Americans will now be able to experience the natural beauty and cultural heritage of these treasured landscapes.”

Covering 4,913 square miles of the Atlantic Ocean 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was established by Obama in 2016 to protect endangered whales, deep sea corals, and other species threatened by industrial fishing operations. In 2020, Trump signed a proclamation reopening the area to commercial fishing, but maintaining the monument’s boundaries. Today, Biden is again banning commercial operations there. The monument has always been open to recreational fishing. 

“Fully restoring the protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument underscores the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to conservation,” says secretary of commerce Gina M. Raimondo. “The rich diversity of species in the monument include rare and endangered marine life—from deep-sea corals and fish, to whales and sea turtles—that continue to be threatened by the climate crisis. With this proclamation we acknowledge the importance to protecting their ongoing contributions to scientific knowledge, ecosystem health, and the sustainability of our planet.”

In addition to restoring protections for the areas, the Biden administration also announced efforts to expand local participation in their management. At Bears Ears, in particular, the DOI says it plans, “to make Bears Ears a model for Tribal participation in the management of the Monument.” The DOI also says it will send new park rangers to the Utah monuments, install new signage, and develop plans for a visitor center at Bears Ears. 

Today’s actions by the Biden administration follow years of advocacy and legal challenges from a vast array of individuals and organizations, ranging from Indigenous tribes to environmental advocates to outdoor brands, like Patagonia. And the order comes only after Secretary Haaland spent time in Utah, soliciting input from all local stakeholders. 

“Today, the voices, hard work, and history of the communities of the Bears Ears region have been honored.”

There is, however, one group unhappy with the restored protections: Republican politicians. 

“President Biden’s decision to expand the monuments is disappointing, though not surprising. For the past ten months, we have consistently offered to work with the Biden Administration on a permanent, legislative solution, one that would end the perpetual enlarging and shrinking of these monuments and bring certainty to their management,” reads a statement issued by six local GOP leaders. They don’t necessarily oppose the restoration, but they’re mad that they were left out of the process. 

Other Republicans are more forthright about their general opposition to the monuments. 

Ryan Zinke, who advised Trump to reduce the size of the monuments during his short time as secretary of the interior, calls the move “another terrible decision from the Biden regime.” And he says it’s “forcing a radical left-wing activist agenda on the people of Utah.” Zinke is currently campaigning for Montana’s new seat in Congress, from his home in Santa Barbara, California.

Cora Neumann, a Democrat who is also running for that seat, and who has been working with locals in Utah to restore the monuments since 2017, disagrees. “Today, the voices, hard work, and history of the communities of the Bears Ears region have been honored,” she tells Outside. “Today we celebrate the restoration of this historic national monument, and the protection of these lands and waterways for generations to come.”

Lead Photo: BLM