President Obama designated two large and historically significant areas of land in Nevada and Utah as national monuments Wednesday, effectively preserving over 1.6 million scenic acres on which reside hundreds of thousands of archaeological sites which date back over 13,000 years.
Under authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906, Bears Ears National Monument, comprising 1.35 million acres in the Cedar Mesa plateau region of southeast Utah, and Gold Butte National Monument, 300,000 acres just northeast of Las Vegas, will be protected by the National Park Service and other federal agencies.
The designation was granted partly because both areas are vulnerable to theft and destruction of valuable ancient artifacts, including rock art, extinct animal fossils, dinosaur tracks and historical cliff dwellings made by North America’s first native tribes.
Despite support from local native and environmental organizations, Obama’s latest unilateral action has come under heavy criticism from Utah Republicans and local residents who fear the land will be virtually unusable under the new designation, which also bans any new mining and drilling activity.
Utah’s entirely Republican congressional delegation had supported a proposal, known as the Public Lands Initiative, to afford federal protection of Bears Ears, while also allowing millions more acres of land farther north to be opened up for commercial and industrial development.
In response to Wednesday’s White House announcement, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch called the action “an astonishing and egregious abuse of executive power”, which proves that “far-left special interest groups matter more to (Obama) than the people who have lived on and cared for Utah’s lands for generations.”
Conversely, Utah’s new monument was praised by Navajo Nation president Russel Begaye whose tribe was one of five that comprised Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, the organization that first proposed the land designation in 2015.
“This is an exciting day for the Navajo Nation . . . and also the tribes that live in area who have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants and a place of prayer and sacredness,” he said. “The rocks, the winds, the land — they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.”
The joy of local natives was not universal, however, as approximately 500 demonstrators congregated outside San Juan County government buildings Thursday holding signs which read: “Trump This Monument”, referring to the president-elect who some local, state and federal Utah officials say they will lobby to reverse Obama’s action.
Despite their optimism, federal courts have previously ruled that presidents cannot undo land designated under the Antiquities Act, although congressional legislation would be able to do so.
Also on Thursday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), sent subpoena letters to the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Interior Department Sec. Sally Jewell, demanding documents related to every land designation President Obama has made under Antiquities.
Chaffetz, a proponent of the Public Lands Initiative compromise, argued that two federal provisions were not adhered to in the designation process, including requirements that the land serve a public purpose and that an environmental review be completed.
The Utah Republican also contends that the 1906 law Obama has used to preserve more land than any other president, “was meant to be reserved for emergency scenarios.”
“Now as the oversight committee, we are left with no choice but to dive headfirst into this,” Chaffetz said in a Thursday interview on KSL Newsradio. “There is no end to the places I will go to make sure we get the truth out about this.”
Enjoy some of Bears Ears natural wonders below:
[AP] [The Hill] [Fox-13 Salt Lake City] [Deseret News]