Report: Interior secretary recommends President Biden restore full protections to Bears Ears, Grand Staircase

In this April 2021 file photo, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks while Utah Gov. Spencer Cox looks on during a news conference in Blanding, Utah, following a visit to Bears Ears National Monument, April 8, 2021 | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Following her visit to Southern Utah in April, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has reportedly recommended that President Biden restore the full size protections to two national monuments diminished by former President Donald Trump.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland tours near ancient dwellings along the Butler Wash trail during a visit to Bears Ears National Monument, near Blanding, Utah, April 8, 2021 | Associated Press file photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

The recommendation to the Biden administration, which includes a third recommendation for a marine reserve off New England, was revealed in a confidential report described by two sources who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity since the recommendation had not yet been made public.

Haaland traveled to Utah to visit the monuments in April at Biden’s request. She is the latest cabinet official to step into a public lands tug-of-war that has gone on for years, but she is the first Indigenous official to get involved in the decision.

Biden asked Haaland to research whether the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante should be restored. Native American tribes supported the creation of Bears Ears by President Barack Obama, but Republican state leaders opposed it. Grand Staircase is older but has long been a point of contention for conservative state leaders who consider both monuments U.S. government overreach.

Bears Ears was downsized by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante cut by nearly half under the Trump administration.

The reductions paved the way for potential coal mining and oil and gas drilling on lands that used to be off-limits, though such activity has been limited because of market dynamics.

A string of U.S. officials has heard from advocates for expanding national monuments to protect archaeological and cultural sites and from opponents who see such moves as federal overreach.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and other prominent Utah Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney and Congressman Chris Stewart, had expressed concern with the review. They met with Haaland on her visit.

(L-R) Rep. Burgess Owens, Lt. Gov Deidre Henderson, U.S. interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Rep. Chris Stewart and Sen. Mike Lee pose for a photo during Haaland’s visit to Utah, April 7-9, 2021 | Photo courtesy of the office of Rep. Chris Stewart, St. George News

Following the visit, Stewart spoke with St. George News and said he was encouraged that Haaland would have possibly recommended the president put the fate of the Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in the hands of Congress rather than leave it to presidential decree.

“It was really, really quite encouraging,” Stewart said on April 10. “I think everyone felt she was listening. She was taking notes, she was asking some good questions, and it appeared she was genuinely trying to find a better solution than just having the president decree (the monuments) back to their original boundaries.”

However, Stewart noted that the president would have the final say in whatever happens.

“The administration unfortunately has the authority through executive order to do what they want with these monuments,” he said.

Stewart told St. George News if Biden restores the monument’s original size, this will just prompt Utah’s congressional delegation to go to the next Republican president and ask them to shrink the monuments yet again.

Bears Ears covers lands considered sacred to Native Americans where red rocks reveal petroglyphs and cliff dwellings and distinctive twin buttes bulge from a grassy valley.

According to the Washington Post, the five tribes that make up the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni — spent the Trump years “hunkering down” and organizing the effort to restore the national monument on land in southeastern Utah they view as central to their culture and history.

When told about Haaland’s recommendation to the White House to restore Bears Ears, the coalition’s executive director, Pat Gonzales-Rogers, said, “If that is indeed the case, we certainly stand in support.”

“We were optimistic all along,” he told The Washington Post. “And I think for me this is the fruition of a lot of the efforts of the leadership as well as the staff of the coalition. It is the thought, the vision, as well as the articulation from all of our tribal leaders. It would be a great and fantastic day.”

Following the news of the recommendation, Cox said he was “disappointed.”

“I think there’s a better way,” he said in a statement, “and I look forward to talking with the president about how to find a lasting solution that’s better for the land and everyone involved.”

St. George News reporter MORI KESSLER and Associated Press writer BRADY McCOMBS contributed to this report.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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