Dec 6, 2017, 12:46 AM ET

Environmentalists, Native American tribes file lawsuits to block shrinkage of national monuments

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Environmental groups and five Native American tribes have filed two lawsuits to block the Trump administration's plan to drastically scale back two national monuments in Utah.

President Donald Trump announced the decision on Monday at the Utah State Capitol. Opponents immediately vowed to take legal action to block the changes.

On Tuesday, a coalition of five tribes filed a complaint in D.C. District Court, arguing the president did not have the authority to undo or replace the existing Bears Ear National Monument. The tribes have long argued that the land protected by President Barack Obama is an important part of their heritage and includes historic and culturally significant artifacts.

FILE - This July 15, 2016, file photo, shows the Moonhouse in McLoyd Canyon which is part of Bears Ears National Monument, near Blanding, Utah. The Associated Press
FILE - This July 15, 2016, file photo, shows the "Moonhouse" in McLoyd Canyon which is part of Bears Ears National Monument, near Blanding, Utah.

The team of lawyers representing the Navajo Nation, Hopi tribe and others is asking the court for an immediate injunction on the Trump decision to prohibit so that the new monuments boundaries cannot be enforced until the matter can be fully litigated.

Shaun Chapoose, a leader from the Ute tribe who is part of the coalition, said at a press conference Monday the announcement was a line in the sand.

"We gathered as sovereign tribes and put aside our differences to benefit not just us but the citizens of the United States. So with that same mentality we'll do the same to protect it. And if they think we're not prepared to protect it they're kidding themselves," Chapoose said.

In a second lawsuit environmental and conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and The Wilderness Society, formally sued the administration for its plans to reduce the size of a second national monument: Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Both lawsuits say the president doesn't actually have the legal authority to make the changes he announced this week.

Trump authorized a review of national monuments designated under the Antiquities Act in an executive order signed in April. The Antiquities Act was enacted in 1906 and gives the president the power to create national monuments, but there has been some disagreement over whether the act gives the president the authority to eliminate them.

The Congressional Research Service wrote a report on this issue in 2016 that found that while the Antiquities Act doesn't specifically grant the president the power to shrink or eliminate monuments, it does say that monument size "shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected," which could be used to justify making the monument smaller.

Trump said Monday that previous administrations abused the act by designating monuments that were too big and gave too much power to the federal government. When he signed the order initiating the review, he called them a "massive federal land grab."

"Previous administrations have ignored the standard, and use the law to lock up hundreds of millions of acres of land and water under strict government control. These abuses of the Antiquities Act give enormous power to faraway bureaucrats at the expense of the people who actually live here, work here, and make this place their home," Trump said in his remarks at the Utah State Capitol.

Ryan ZinkeThe Associated Press
Ryan Zinke

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Monday the land will still be federal land managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. But Republicans on the House Committee on Natural Resources introduced a bill Monday that would establish co-management of the entire area that is no longer part of the monuments between Native American groups and elected officials. The bill's cosponsors, who are all Republicans from Utah, said on a call with reporters Tuesday the legislation will create specific protections around the land that is no longer part of the monument and they hope it will make the lawsuits irrelevant.

In response to a question about the new legislation, Ethel Branch, Attorney General for the Navajo Nation replied: "Then why they are so insistent on the president messing with the original proclamation?"

"Why don't they just honor the existing lawful proclamation instead of doing whatever it is they are trying to do here?"

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, also said on the call that they will propose creating a national park on the land called Grand Escalante Canyon National Park and will move to transfer Hole in the Rock Road, which is a historic location for the Mormon community in Utah, back to the state's control.

Big names like Patagonia are also getting involved. Patagonia's website Monday featured a page that read "The President Stole Your Land" with information about the president's decision and a call to help groups that are suing the administration.

But Zinke said on a call with reporters Tuesday that no land has been transferred out of federal control and that special interests were using the announcement to raise money.

"The argument that somehow President Trump stole land is nefarious, false and a lie," Zinke said Tuesday.

One of the concerns cited by those who want the monuments to stay as they are is that revoking the monument status will allow companies to begin mining the land for oil, gas or uranium.

“The Trump administration has declared 'open season' on places Americans hold dear so that profit-seekers can drill, mine and log our public lands for private gain. By making commercial exploitation of these national treasures the top priority, this administration betrays the history of these sacred places, as well as their value as places for people to enjoy the outdoors and for wildlife to thrive," Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams said in a statement.

The bill introduced would also protect the land from mining, Republican Rep. John Curtis of Utah said on a call with reporters, as well as require a law enforcement presence and a unit specifically to protect the antiquities and historical sites on the land.

An Interior Department official said Monday that there has not been any interest in mining on land that was part of the monuments. The Bureau of Land Management announced last week that there will be an auction in March to allow oil and gas permits in other parts of San Juan County, where the monuments are, and a neighboring county. Local political leaders cited harm to the mining industry as a reason the monuments should be made smaller in a comment posted on the review in May.

A hearing has not yet been scheduled in either of the lawsuits.

News - Environmentalists, Native American tribes file lawsuits to block shrinkage of national monuments

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  • Steve Jarrett

    But we need to make room for all the millions of refugees, DACA recipients, chain-migraters, etc.. Where are they people going to live if we don't give up our public lands to make room for them all? Put them in the cities so we have even more homeless there?

  • BLW51

    If the Republicans are swearing they'll continue to "protect" the lands after they are removed from the monuments, why are they even shrinking the monuments? Sounds like another Trump/Republican fabrication and the will open/sell the land to the highest bidder when the time is right. Just like the new tax bill won't touch Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but ensuing legislation will when Republicans start screaming "deficit".

  • TexasVulcan

    Preserve our National Parks, Monuments and Forests. Go to Change dot org. Search "National Monuments".

  • 40acre

    Can anyone name one thing Trump has done that DIDN'T eliminate protections? Protections for people's rights, protections for the environment, protection for consumers, protections for Federal Lands, protections for our citizens overseas? ANYTHING???

  • Rodney Bayburn

    I’m honestly waiting for trump to say that he has the right to demolish mt Rushmore and just put a image of himself in its place and build a trump hotel there that only
    Mara a lago members can go see.

  • oakgrovehobbitt

    more lawsuits ... <yawn>

  • sh0000

    Another decision by this Administration in which the American people are overwhelmingly against. Aren't these politicians elected to represent us?

  • Verity Pendelton

    To think that 658,000 Americans died in a war over states rights and now we are arguing this point again. It has been proven TIME and TIME again that the states do NOT do the right thing with these lands. Look at Oklahoma. They sold off 30 of their state parks and now they stand in disrepair and abandonment. We cannot allow that to happen.

  • Edup McD

    Trump is backwalking from his April speech in calling this a land grab ...
    Donnie Dotard's order then was the Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act in what he said, "to end another egregious abuse of federal power and to give that power back to the states and the people, where it belongs" ...

  • BD70

    This is a serious issue but I do have to say....can you change the headline to read Environmentalists, tribes seek to block DOWNSIZING of national monuments? Using the word "shrinkage" has caused that Seinfeld episode to be stuck in my head.

  • Edup McD

    Water in premoninantly desert land?
    In addition, the Navajo Nation Safe Water Drinking Act (NNSWDA) was adopted by the Navajo Council in 1995 to include Underwater Injection Control's for provisions in protecting underground sources of drinking water from activities by the oil & gas industries ...
    Many people purchase bottled drinking water ...
    Americans are wasteful & need to learn to conserve instead of leaving water running while cleaning to water streets & fill sewers , make use of rain barrels to water plants, use public facilities rather than building private swimming pools & waterfalls, etc ...

  • pshep

    Asian Americans beware. Trump has successfully insulted and isolated every group but you. Tread lightly

  • Captn Blynd

    "The monument protects 1,351,849 acres (547,074 ha) of public land surrounding the Bears Ears, a pair of mesas."
    That is 2,112 square miles, or just under twice the size of the State of Rhode Island (1,212 square miles). Just this one "monument". This was done December 28 of 2016, less than 1 year ago. One of the last acts by an out-going administration.
    If it were put to a vote, I would have to vote against adding this much more land to our national monuments. We have plenty of stinking hot desert reserved forever.

  • Ruben Delgadillo

    Hurry up Mueller with you're investigation, Trump needs to go ASAP!

  • GorillaMyDreams

    "The tribes have long argued that the land protected by President Barack Obama is an important part of their heritage and includes historic and culturally significant artifacts"

    More important than oil, gas and uranium? Guess not. Plus, anything Obama did must be overturned, right?

    From what I've read, the vast majority of the people of Utah do not want these protected lands reduced in size. So, who is it that is doing a "land grab"?