Published on : Friday, October 8, 2021
President Joe Biden is going to restore two sprawling national monuments in Utah that have been at the centre of a long-running public lands dispute, and a separate marine conservation area in New England that recently has been used for commercial fishing.
Environmental protections at all three monuments had been stripped by former President Donald Trump. The White House announced the changes Thursday night ahead of a ceremony expected Friday.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, expressed disappointment in Biden’s decision to restore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments, which the Trump administration downsized significantly in 2017.
These national monuments cover vast expanses of southern Utah where red rocks reveal petroglyphs and cliff dwellings and distinctive buttes bulge from a grassy valley. Trump invoked the century-old Antiquities Act to cut 2 million acres (800,000 hectares) from the two monuments, calling restrictions on mining and other energy production a “massive land grab” that “should never have happened.
His actions slashed Bears Ears, on lands considered sacred to Native American tribes, by 85%, to just over 200,000 acres (80,900 hectares). They cut Grand Staircase-Escalante by nearly half, leaving it at about 1 million acres (405,000 hectares). Both monuments were created by Democratic presidents.
The White House said in a statement that Biden was “fulfilling a key promise” to restore the monuments to their full size and “upholding the longstanding principle that America’s national parks, monuments and other protected areas are to be protected for all time and for all people.”
His actions were among a series of steps the administration has taken to protect public lands and waters, the White House said, including moves to halt oil leasing in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and prevent road-building in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the nation’s largest federal forest.
Biden’s plan also restores protections in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument in the Atlantic Ocean, southeast of Cape Cod. Trump had made a rule change to allow commercial fishing at the marine monument, an action that was heralded by fishing groups but derided by environmentalists who pushed Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to restore protections against fishing.
Protecting the marine monument safeguards “this invaluable area for the fragile species that call it home” and demonstrates the administration’s commitment to science, said Jen Felt, ocean campaign director for the Conservation Law Foundation.
Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, also praised the Biden administration in a statement, saying restoring the monuments shows its dedication to “conserving our public lands and respecting the voices of Indigenous Peoples.
But Utah’s governor called Biden’s decision a “tragic missed opportunity.” The president’s action “fails to provide certainty as well as the funding for law enforcement, research and other protections which the monuments need and which only Congressional action can offer,” Cox said in a statement released with other state leaders.
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney also criticized Biden, saying in a tweet the president had “squandered the opportunity to build consensus” and find a permanent solution for the monuments.
Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group, also applauded Biden’s decision and said she hopes it marks an initial step toward his goal of conserving at least 30% of U.S. lands and ocean by 2030.
Donald Trump’s cuts ironically increased the national attention to Bears Ears, Rokala said. She called on the federal government to boost funding to manage the landscape and handle growing crowds.
Haaland, the first Indigenous Cabinet secretary, travelled to Utah in April to visit the monuments, becoming the latest federal official to step into what has been a year’s long public lands battle. She submitted her recommendations on the monuments in June.
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