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‘Political football’? Biden wants review of Bears Ears, Grand Staircase boundaries



SALT LAKE CITY — As expected, President Joe Biden said he will have the U.S. Department of Interior conduct a review of the boundaries for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, both of which were created in a tempest of controversy and then later reduced amid equal outcry.

Former President Donald Trump slashed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument nearly by half to 1 million acres and broke up Bears Ears into two separate units totaling 228,700 acres in December 2017 through an executive order.

The boundary reductions happened at the urging of Utah’s top political leaders, including the congressional delegation, the governor and after a resolution passed by the Utah Legislature.

At the time, Trump indicated it was the pressure and persistence of former Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that ultimately helped convince him to make the boundary changes.

Utah’s congressional delegation as well as state officials including Gov. Spencer Cox, Attorney General Sean Reyes, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, issued a statement Wednesday cautioning the new president.

“For over 25 years Utah has been the center of controversial and divisive unilateral national monument decisions. 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,” the statement said.

“A review in name only with predetermined results, which ultimately leads to a unilateral executive order enlarging the monuments’ boundaries, will not solve the root of the problem and will only deepen divisions in this country.”

The group went on to note that Biden “championed” a message of unity during his campaign — something they hope he delivers when it comes to controversial monument decisions.

Bears Ears was created in the waning days of the Obama administration after he sent then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to visit the remote region in San Juan County that is said to be an archaeological treasure trove boasting more than 100,000 cultural artifacts from Native Americans who hold the area sacred.

The designation of the 1.35-million acre monument brought cries of protest from Utah’s conservative leaders who accused Obama of abusing his authority under the Antiquities Act.

That act gives presidential authority to create monuments for resource protection, but critics say it has been widely misused to lock up vast acres of land and other resources that go beyond the scope of the law.

Trump shrank both monuments after his interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, took a tour of Bears Ears by helicopter and on horseback, as well as visiting areas at Grand Staircase.

After those monuments were reduced in size, multiple groups filed lawsuits in federal court challenging Trump’s authority to make those reductions. Those lawsuits are still pending.

Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa — a pro-monument organization — said ideally, there should be a legislative solution to the Bears Ears question.

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