President Obama declares two new National Monuments


Author: Steven Shaw
Date: 12.28.16

President Barack Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate two new national monuments in Utah and Nevada, protecting a total of 1.64 million acres.  

“I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House.

The Bears Ears National Monument is located in southeastern Utah near the already existing Natural Bridges National Monument. It will protect roughly 1.35 million acres. The Gold Butte National Monument is located just outside of Las Vegas and will protect nearly 300,000 acres.  Both sites are home to land considered sacred by Native American tribes, as well as incredible cultural sites and irreplaceable wildlife habitat.

The Bears Ears Monument, in particular, will protect one of the richest and most culturally significant sites in the western United States, according to Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings exist in the Bears Ears area.

Secretary Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Visack released a press release applauding the President’s designation.

“The rock art, ancient dwellings, and ceremonial sites concealed within these breathtaking landscapes help tell the story of people who have stewarded these lands for hundreds of generations,” said Secretary Jewell. “Today’s action builds on an extraordinary effort from tribes, local communities, and members of Congress to ensure that these treasures are protected for generations to come, so that tribes may continue to use and care for these lands, and all may have an opportunity to enjoy their beauty and learn from their rich cultural history.”

“Utahns of all creeds are rightfully proud of the spectacular Bears Ears landscape, treasuring the opportunity to recreate, hunt, ranch and engage in their traditional cultural and spiritual practices. Rather than closing off opportunities to continue those uses, today’s announcement is a recognition that those activities can continue, and the natural and cultural resources the communities prize are worthy of permanent protection to be shared with all Americans,” said Secretary Vilsack. “As we move forward with planning for monument implementation, the deep knowledge of the tribal community as well as ranchers, recreationists, archeologists and local community citizens will be heard.”

Cliff dwellings in Bears Ears National Monument. Credit: BLM

Cliff dwellings in Bears Ears National Monument. Credit: BLM

Not everyone is happy. Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz who has been steadfast in his opposition to the Bears Ears monument immediately released stinging press release criticizing the “unwanted midnight monument.”

“President Obama’s unilateral decision to invoke the Antiquities Act in Utah politicizes a long-simmering conflict.” Said Chaffetz. “The midnight move is a slap in the face to the people of Utah… It does not have the support of the Governor, a single member of the state’s Congressional delegation, nor any local elected officials or state legislators who represent the area.”

"We look forward to working with President-elect Trump to follow through on his commitment to repeal midnight regulations. We will work to repeal this top-down decision and replace it with one that garners local support and creates a balanced, win-win solution.” Chaffetz continued.

Gold Butte National Monument. Credit: BLM

Gold Butte National Monument. Credit: BLM

The nearly 300,000 acre Gold Butte National Monument had split support in Nevada’s congressional delegation.  Both retiring Senate Minority Leader Democrat Harry Reid and Representative Dina Titus have previously urged the president to designate the monument.

Nevada’s Republican Senator Dean Heller who has steadfastly opposed the monument designation released a statement following the designation.

“I am terribly disappointed with today’s news. For years, I have urged for all new land designations, especially ones in Nevada, to be considered in an open and public Congressional process. Doing so allows for all voices and stakeholders to have an equal opportunity to be heard. Best of all, input from local parties guarantees local needs are addressed. In the future, I will continue to fight for an open process utilizing Congressional support to designate new national monuments,” said Senator Dean Heller.   

There is also potential for further controversy and conflict surrounding the Gold Butte National Monument, which is located near the ranch of Cliven Bundy. In April of 2014, the Bundy Ranch rose to the national spotlight over an armed standoff against the Bureau of Land Management.  Bundy and his sons, Ammon and Ryan were supported by various militia groups. The Bundy’s maintained they had “ancestral rights” to graze cattle in the Gold Butte area free of charge. The BLM disagreed and demanded back payment for grazing fees that Bundy refused to pay for many previous years. Pictures and video of people armed with assault weapons dominated the news cycle for several weeks.

The standoff ended peacefully, but Cliven Bundy, his sons, and several others have since been federally charged over the incident. Earlier this year Ammon and Ryan Bundy were acquitted of all charges stemming from the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon.

A press release from the Department of Interior attempts to alleviate concerns of those against the monument. It says the monument designations will maintain the currently authorized uses of the land so long as they do not harm the resources protected by the monument. Such uses include tribal access and traditional collection of plants and firewood, off-highway vehicle recreation, hunting and fishing and authorized grazing. The release goes on to say the monument designation will  not affect valid existing rights for oil, gas, and mining operations, military training operations, and utility corridors.

President-Elect Donald Trump has been a vocal critic of President Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act to designate new national monuments. The President-Elect has threatened to reverse the President’s use of the executive order.

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