Utah congressmen press Biden Administration for collaboration over national monuments

ST. GEORGE — After hearing little from the Biden administration in response to a February letter from Utah’s congressional delegation and other state leaders concerning an executive order related to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments, a second letter was sent urging a congressional solution to the state’s longstanding issues with both monuments versus unilateral presidential action.

This December 2016 file photo shows the two buttes that make up the namesake for Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, San Juan County, Utah, Dec. 2016 | Photo by Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via The Associated Press, St. George News

Last week, members of Utah’s all-Republican congressional delegation sent a second letter to Biden echoing points raised in the original Feb. 17 letter.

Reps. Chris Stewart, John Curtis, Burgess Owens and Blake Moore and Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney each signed the second letter asking once more for President Joe Biden to consider allowing a legislative solution to take shape. They also asked him to extend the 60-day review period concerning the national monuments that is quickly coming to an end.

The reason for an extension is to allow the likely incoming Secretary of the Interior, Rep. Debra Halland of New Mexico, time to review the issues surrounding the monuments. It will also give her time to visit the monuments in person and meet local stakeholders.

Currently, Haaland is Biden’s appointee for the Interior secretary position, but she has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

“During the hearing regarding her pending nomination to be Secretary of the Interior, Representative Haaland committed to Senator Lee to come to Utah to meet and speak with those who are impacted by the monument designations and who understand the issue best. Unfortunately, time is running short to fulfill this commitment,” the letter states.

The letter continues:

If the timeline (of the review) is not extended, Representative Haaland, if confirmed, may have only days to consider the recommendations of the Department of the Interior, which she would then transmit to you, almost certainly eliminating the possibility for her to travel to Utah and meet with stakeholders who may otherwise be unheard. This recommendation, which could change the fate of millions of acres of land in Utah and uproot entire economies, is hardly a matter that can be decided in such a short period of time. This is especially true if the Secretary is unable to fulfill her commitment prior to issuing the review containing recommendations for action. …

This recommendation, which could change the fate of millions of acres of land in Utah and uproot entire economies, is hardly a matter that can be decided in such a short period of time. This is especially true if the Secretary is unable to fulfill her commitment prior to issuing the review containing recommendations for action.

On the matter of a legislative solution versus a unilateral one, the delegation stated that executive orders can fall short in establishing protections for sensitive areas and proper management.

In this May 2017 file photo, then-Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., May 24, 2017 | Associated Press photo by Steven Senne, St. George News

“Executive action under the Antiquities Act will result in the same shortcomings,” the letter states. “We would much prefer a legislative solution. A legislative approach – if pursued with the support of the Utah delegation – would serve both the nation and our constituents. If successful, such an effort could help us end this historic cycle of disputes.”

Going through Congress can help establish permanent boundaries for the Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, the letters states, rather than subject them to continuing changes every four to eight years depending on who’s seated in the Oval Office. This would also allow for stakeholders in the area to have their voices heard rather than be left feeling like they have been outright ignored.

The letter concludes:

In summary, we ask to meet with you to begin the process of finding a legislative solution and to extend the date by which this review is to be completed in order to appropriately engage with those impacted. We are confident that your administration can achieve a better, and possibly historic result, with substantive input and engagement from Utah’s stakeholders. Furthermore, if a review is transmitted to you by the Department of the Interior prior to the confirmation of a Senate-confirmed Secretary, our state could be deprived of meaningful opportunities to engage with the Department’s senior-most official on this most pressing issue.

Thank you for your consideration. We appreciate and await your prompt response.

Both the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bear Ears national monuments have been the cause of contention and controversy between Utah Republicans and federal officials and agencies.

In this file photo, President Donald Trump holds up a signed proclamation to shrink the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments at the Utah State Capitol, Dec. 4, 2017, in Salt Lake City, Utah | Associated Press file photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

Grand Staircase-Escalante was created by former President Bill Clinton in 1996, while Bears Ears was designated as a national monument by President Barack Obama in 2016. The creation of these monuments has been considered an abuse of the Antiquities Act by members of Utah’s state government and congressional delegation over the years due to their original size.

In December 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order reducing the size of both monuments. Bears Ears was taken from 1.3 million acres to just under 202,000 acres, while Grand Staircase-Escalante went from 1.9 million to just under 1 million acres.

Since then, there have been efforts made by individuals and conservation groups to restore the original boundaries.

As as way to help solidify the new boundaries of least one of the monuments, Rep. Chris Stewart introduced congressional legislation that proposes to turn a part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument into a national park. The park would be formed out of one of the three segments that remain of the original monument, while the other two segments would retain their national monument status.

On the state level, recent legislation passed by Reps. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, and Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, in the 2021 general session of the Utah Legislature, will create a committee to look into the creation of a visitors center for the Bear Ears National Monument. A visitor center is considered a potential benefit to the area no matter the form the monument holds in the future.

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

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