BLUFF, Utah—Ranchers, wildcatters, Native Americans and environmentalists are among the many looking to see how Interior Secretary
balances their competing interests over the vast tracts of federal lands she oversees.
They will be watching closely Thursday, when the Laguna Pueblo tribe member and former New Mexico congresswoman tours two scenic national monuments in southern Utah that were drastically downsized under former President
Mr. Trump reduced the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments by two-thirds, saying his predecessors overstepped their authority in giving so much land the protections that come with monument status.
The interior secretary’s trip is part of a Biden administration review of Mr. Trump’s action. Several tribes, environmental groups and outdoor-recreation companies challenged the boundary reduction, leaving the territory’s status in legal limbo for more than three years.
As part of her review, Ms. Haaland has meetings scheduled with tribal leaders and environmentalists who want the previous boundaries restored, as well as with business owners, energy interests and state elected officials who say too much territory has been closed to commercial uses.
Ms. Haaland hasn’t tipped her hand ahead of these meetings, but she is a longtime advocate of expanded conservation efforts and better protections for American Indian interests.
“I’ve been to Bears Ears. I’ve hiked there. I’ve camped there. I know how special it is,” she told reporters in a videoconference on Friday ahead of her trip. “I will listen, take note, I will make sure that whatever decisions are made are made with an eye toward protecting that cultural heritage. It’s an amazing place.”
Bears Ears was created in 2016 by President
and nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated by President
Together, the monuments comprised more than 3 million acres, before the downsizing by Mr. Trump to about 1.2 million acres.
Mr. Trump’s decision to shrink them was a rare move from a president, reversing a decades-old dynamic of increased federal protection of land.
Mr. Trump had signed his orders in the rotunda of the Utah Capitol surrounded by a cheering crowd of state and local officials. He sided with their claims that ranchers were being blocked from keeping a legacy business and miners were being unfairly shut out by presidential overreach.
Monuments are federally protected reserves that may include culturally or historically important features. Monuments function much like national parks, but can be created by the president. National parks are created by an act of Congress.
Utah’s congressional delegation had met with President Biden’s Interior Department leaders in the days before Ms. Haaland’s confirmation, and they asked for the secretary to visit the monuments. They have advocated for an agreement negotiated between federal, state and tribal officials, and backed by a vote in Congress. They said they wanted Ms. Haaland first to meet people who live and work on the land.
“We are also confident that this trip will successfully highlight the need for a permanent legislative solution for determining appropriate boundaries…with statutory protections to prevent abuses under the Antiquities Act,” six Republican Utah members of Congress and state leaders, including GOP Gov. Spencer Cox, said in a statement after the trip was announced.
The Trump administration had alarmed environmentalists with plans for what activities could take place there, allowing timber harvesting and off-road vehicle use, and not prohibiting oil and gas leasing on former monument land.
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The tribes leading the still-pending legal fight against Mr. Trump’s decision are asking Mr. Biden to go beyond just restoring the monuments’ footprints. They want him to add more than another half-million acres to Bears Ears, the full area they had originally petitioned Mr. Obama to protect.
The area is a diverse mix including canyon land, ponderosa pine forest and deserts with sandstone towers that has been culturally important to several Native American tribes for thousands of years. It is full of thousands of archeological sites and is part of a broader region sacred to tribes, stretching all the way to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, and full of burial and ceremonial sites still used today.
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