SALT LAKE CITY – President Joe Biden is restoring two sprawling national monuments in Utah, reversing a decision by President Donald Trump that opened for mining and development some red-rock lands sacred to Native Americans and home to ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.
The Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments encompass more than 3.2 million acres — an area nearly the size of Connecticut — and were created by Democratic administrations under a century-old law that allows presidents to protect sites considered historic, geographically or culturally important.
In a separate action, Biden is set to restore protections at a marine conservation area off the New England coast that has been used for commercial fishing under an order by Trump.
The White House announced the changes Thursday night ahead of a White House ceremony Friday afternoon.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, expressed disappointment in Biden's decision to restore the Utah monuments, which Trump downsized significantly in 2017.
The 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). Grand Staircase-Escalante was cut by nearly half, leaving it at about 1 million acres (405,000 hectares).
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.”
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 in a nearly 5,000-square-mile area, 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.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., 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.”
“It’s time to put Trump’s cynical actions in the rear-view mirror,” Grijalva said.
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.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, also criticized Biden, saying in a tweet the president had “squandered the opportunity to build consensus” and find a permanent solution for the monuments.
“Yet again, Utah’s national monuments are being used as a political football between administrations,” Romney said Thursday. “The decision to re-expand the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is a devastating blow to our state, local and tribal leaders and our delegation ... today’s ‘winner take all’ mentality moved us further away from that goal."
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.
“Thank you, President Biden,” Rokala said in a statement. “You have listened to Indigenous tribes and the American people and ensured these landscapes will be protected for generations to come.”
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 Native American Cabinet secretary, traveled to Utah in April to visit the monuments, becoming the latest federal official to step into what has been a yearslong public lands battle. She submitted her recommendations on the monuments in June.
In a statement Thursday, Haaland said she had the “distinct honor to speak with many people who care deeply about this land” during her Utah trip.
“The historical connection between Indigenous peoples and Bears Ears is undeniable; our Native American ancestors sustained themselves on the landscape since time immemorial, and evidence of their rich lives is everywhere one looks,” said Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico.
President Barack Obama proclaimed Bears Ears a national monument in 2016, 20 years after President Bill Clinton moved to protect Grand Staircase-Escalante. Bears Ears was the first site to receive the designation at the specific request of tribes.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which pushed for its restoration, has said the monument's twin buttes are considered a place of worship for many tribes. The group incudes the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe.
“President Biden did the right thing restoring the Bears Ears National Monument," Shaun Chapoose, coalition member and chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee, said in a statement. “For us, the Monument never went away. We will always return to these lands to manage and care for our sacred sites, waters and medicines.”
The Trump administration’s reductions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante paved the way for potential coal mining and oil and gas drilling on lands that were previously off-limits. However, activity was limited because of market forces.
Conservative state leaders considered the size of both monuments U.S. government overreach and applauded the reductions.
Environmental, tribal, paleontological and outdoor recreation organizations sued to restore their original boundaries,
Biden's decision to restore protections came down to environmental groups having a stronger lobby than fishing advocates, said Bob Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, a domestic seafood industry group.
“Anyone who likes fresh local swordfish, tuna, lobster and crabmeat should be very angry with the Harris-Biden Administration today," Vanasse said.
Associated Press writers Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City and Patrick Whittle in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.