Obama Designates 1.35 Million Acres in Utah to Protect Native Lands

Angela Bronner Helm
President Barack Obama in 2012
Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In yet another move meant to cement his legacy as an environmental advocate, President Barack Obama recently designated 1.35 million acres of land in Utah for a new national monument, one meant to protect Native lands and precious environmental resources.

The Bears Ears National Monument is 1.35 million acres of public land, “redrock country rich with archaeological sites, centuries-old cultural ties and a uniqueness that had inspired Americans' love of Western vistas,” down from some 1.9 million acres that tribal leaders advocated, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.


In his statement on Wednesday, the president noted:

Today, I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes. … Following years of public input and various proposals to protect both of these areas, including legislation and a proposal from tribal governments in and around Utah, these monuments will protect places that a wide range of stakeholders all agree are worthy of protection.

Yet, The Hill reports that all of Utah’s statewide leaders and congressional delegation oppose the Bears Ears monument, saying it unnecessarily restricts land uses like fossil fuel production. Attorney General Sean Reyes has threatened to sue Obama over Bears Ears.

“My office is working closely with the governor’s office, federal and state legislators, and San Juan County to file a lawsuit challenging this egregious overreach by the Obama administration,” Reyes said in a statement late Wednesday after Obama’s announcement.


Republican Gov. Gary Herbert is also opposed, and the Salt Lake Tribune reports that Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is set to issue subpoenas about the designation. Legislation to overturn the new monument is expected at the start of Congress' new session in January. The Tribune notes that Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican whose biggest campaign contributors are from the oil and gas industries, worked closely with Chaffetz to leave part of the land open to development.

Opponents of the designation say that President-elect Donald Trump has the power under the Antiquities Act to undo Obama's actions. Incidentally, it is the Antiquties Act, a 1906 law that gives a president unilateral power to preserve public lands as monuments. that gave Obama the authority to create Bears Ears.


“If you abuse the Antiquities Act, Congress is going to take that power away from future presidents,” gripes Republican Rep. Chris Stewart last month.

As for the citizens themselves, a poll taken before Obama’s announcement found that 46 percent of Utahans do not want Trump to undo the designation, and 40 percent want him to.


The Tribune reports that Obama has long had his eye on preserving public lands. “I’ve preserved more than 3 million acres of public lands for future generations. And I am not finished,” Obama said in August 2014. The outgoing president’s grand total now covers 553 million acres of protected land and water with 29 new or expanded monuments.

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