Despite being scooped on his own announcement Thursday afternoon by Utah elected officials, President Joe Biden has officially restored Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments to at least their originally designated boundaries. Biden also restored protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of New England.
Biden signed the proclamations Friday outside of the White House where tribal leaders were in attendance. The move comes after former President Donald Trump slashed the monuments in 2017 by 85% for Bears Ears and by about half for Grand Staircase-Escalante
“The protection of public lands … must not become ... a pendulum that swings back and forth depending on who's in public office. It's not a partisan issue,” Biden said Friday. “The truth is national monuments and parks are part of our identity as a people. They are more than natural wonders, they’re the birthright we pass from generation to generation — a birthright of every American.”
Besides restoring the boundaries of the monuments, the White House said in a statement Thursday they will make sure there is proper staffing and resources to protect the area, as well as “make Bears Ears a model for Tribal participation in the management of the Monument.”
Grand Staircase-Escalante is now back to its original boundaries of 1.87 million acres. Bears Ears returned to its 2016 designated size, including 11,200 acres added by Trump. The size of the monument is now 1.36 million acres.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland toured the Utah sites earlier this year with local and state officials and recommended the president fully restore the monuments. At Friday’s ceremony, she talked about the cultural heritage and sacredness of Bears Ears.
“This is a place that must be protected in perpetuity for every American and every child of the world,” Haaland said. “The president's actions today writes a new chapter that embraces Indigenous knowledge, ensures tribal leadership has a seat at the table and demonstrates that by working together, we can build a brighter future for all of us. We have much more good work ahead. Together, we will tell a more complete story of America.”
Tribal leaders and conservation groups thanked the president for the restoration. Members of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which was formed by five tribes to advocate for the monument, were at the White House ceremony — including Clark Tenakhongva, co-chair of the coalition and vice chairman of the Hopi tribe.
He said the signing is just the start. Tenakhongva said now the tribes are focused on developing and implementing a co-management plan for Bears Ears, and making sure things aren’t reversed again.
After the signing, he said “for the next four years, we will work diligently to make this a permanent place where, through legislation” their work won’t be undone.
Members of the nonprofit organization Utah Diné Bikéyah celebrated the news and said they will continue to advocate for expanding Bears Ears to a suggested 1.9 million acres. Mary Benally, a board member of the group, said they’re fighting for protection, not control of the land.
“We're not doing it for profit. We're not doing it for self prestige, anything like that. We're doing it to preserve this beautiful landscape,” she said at a press conference in Bears Ears on Friday. “This is a small piece of land that we're fighting for, and we don't want any kind of development or extraction mining to destroy what's here.”
Utah’s congressional delegates and state leaders released statements against the restoration on Thursday ahead of the president’s announcement. Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and other Utah officials called the announcement “disappointing, though not surprising.”
In the statement, the elected leaders also signaled they are looking into “all available legal options.”
But Utah Democratic officials and environmental groups say there have been “too many opportunities” for a legislative fix that politicians have passed up. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Legal Director Steve Bloch said the calls for congressional action now sound “incredibly hollow.”
“[Utah congressional and state leaders] were not singing this song after President Trump unlawfully dismantled these monuments,” Bloch said. “Where were they for the past three and a half years or the years leading up to the establishment of these monuments? … It’s only now that they’re saying that Biden should have waited.”
During the White House ceremony, Biden also discussed his climate plan to conserve 30% of the U.S. land and water by 2030.