President Trump sharply reduced the size of two national monuments in Utah on Monday by some two million acres, the largest rollback of federal land protection in the nation’s history.
The administration shrank Bears Ears National Monument, a sprawling region of red rock canyons, by 85 percent, and cut another monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante, to about half its current size. The move, a reversal of protections put in place by Democratic predecessors, comes as the administration pushes for fewer restrictions and more development on public lands.
The decision to reduce Bears Ears is expected to set off a legal battle that could alter the course of American land conservation, putting dozens of other monuments at risk and possibly opening millions of preserved public acres to oil and gas extraction, mining, logging and other commercial activities.
“Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington,” Mr. Trump said, speaking at Utah’s State Capitol beneath a painting of Mormon pioneers. “And guess what? They’re wrong.”
“Together,” he continued, “we will usher in a bright new future of wonder and wealth.”
President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears a monument in 2016, and President Bill Clinton classified Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996, using a century-old law called the Antiquities Act that grants presidents the authority to set aside landmarks and “other objects of historic or scientific interest.”
The law says that presidents should limit designations to the “smallest area compatible with proper care and management.” In both cases, Utah politicians have argued that the actions of the previous presidents abused the law by exceeding that limit and were illegal.
Environmentalists and some native nations say Mr. Trump’s decision will destroy the national heritage and threaten some 100,000 sites of archaeological importance in the monuments’ desert landscapes.
Conservative lawmakers and many Westerners argue that the move is the proper response to decades of federal overreach that have sometimes starved communities of revenue and autonomy. When Mr. Clinton formed Grand Staircase, the move halted plans for a coal mining project there that would have brought desperately needed jobs to a poor county.
Mr. Trump’s move is viewed as a victory for Republican lawmakers, fossil fuel companies and others. The federal government controls about two-thirds of the land in Utah, and the state’s leading politicians have long pushed for more local control.
“He’s been sympathetic to the fact that we’ve been mistreated,” Senator Mike Lee of Utah said of the president, “and I’m grateful that he is willing to correct it.”
The announcement sparked an immediate outcry from Mr. Trump’s opponents. “What’s next, President Trump, the Grand Canyon?” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In April, Mr. Trump ordered the secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, to review 27 national monuments created since 1996, a process he said would “end another egregious use of government power.” In August, Mr. Zinke delivered a report to the president suggesting that Mr. Trump change the boundaries of several of those monuments.
The struggle over public lands has been fought most fiercely in the West, and Mr. Trump’s decision was anxiously anticipated for months. On Monday morning, hundreds of people gathered outside the State Capitol, some in cowboy hats, to protest Mr. Trump’s announcement.
Helaman Thor Hale and Andrea Hale, both Native Americans, brought their three sons to the rally. “It’s a historical trauma our people have been through over and over,” Mr. Hale said of Mr. Trump’s move.
Farther south, at the edge of the monument, another group gathered to applaud Mr. Trump’s decision standing beneath a banner: “Thank you for listening to local voices.”
The Navajo Nation, along with other tribes and conservation and outdoor industry groups, has vowed to challenge the decision to reduce both monuments in court, and several lawsuits are expected.
“We will stand and fight all the way,” said Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, adding that the United States government had already taken “millions of acres of my people’s land.”
At least one lawsuit was filed late Monday — by the Wilderness Society, Great Old Broads for Wilderness and eight other groups — in defense of Grand Staircase.
National monuments are lands that are protected from development by law. They are roughly analogous to national parks, but while national parks are created by Congress, national monuments are created by presidents through the Antiquities Act. Republicans and Democrats alike have used the law to protect millions of acres of public land, and its supporters say it is a bedrock of the American conservation legacy.
Each monument has its own specific restrictions. At Bears Ears, for example, federal rules forbid new mining and drilling, but allow the interior department to continue to issue cattle grazing leases.
Mr. Trump is not the first president to shrink a monument. Woodrow Wilson reduced Mount Olympus by half. Franklin Roosevelt cut the Grand Canyon monument at the behest of ranchers. (Both are now national parks.)
But the courts have never ruled on whether a president actually has the power to make these changes. The coming legal battle will probably have far-reaching implications.
If Mr. Trump’s legal challengers win in court, the decision could affirm future presidents’ rights to use the Antiquities Act to extend protection to large areas of public land, and cement the monuments’ current boundaries.
But if they lose, Mr. Trump and future presidents could drastically shrink any of the dozens of monuments created by their predecessors, opening the formerly protected terrain for all kinds of development.
One-hundred and twenty-one scholars recently signed a letter arguing that only Congress can legally shrink a monument. Todd Gaziano of the Pacific Legal Foundation and John Yoo of the University of California, Berkeley’s law school, have argued in opposition, saying that the power to create a monument “implicitly also includes the power of reversal.”
President Obama created Bears Ears National Monument in December 2016, after years of lobbying by five tribes in the region: the Navajo, the Hopi, the Ute Mountain Ute, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Zuni. It is named for a pair of towering buttes — the Bears Ears — that dominate much of the landscape.
Mr. Obama set the boundaries to include 1.35 million acres, a size his supporters said was needed to protect some 100,000 objects of archaeological significance, including grave sites, ceremonial grounds, ancient cliff dwellings, as well as their surrounding ecosystem.
Mr. Trump’s proclamation shrinks Bears Ears to just over 200,000 acres, and it reflects a more narrow view of the Antiquities Act. He confines monument protection to two separated land masses that include the most celebrated features — places like the Bears Ears, Moon House Ruins, Doll House Ruins, Mule Canyon and Comb Ridge, which is home to ancient granaries, kivas and a wall-size mural called the Butler Wash Kachina Panel.
In a proclamation explaining his decision, Mr. Trump said that some of the places in the original monument “are not unique to the monument” or “are not of significant scientific or historic interest.” Others, he notes, are already protected in other ways.
For example, the proclamation says, “plant and animal species such as the bighorn sheep, the Kachina daisy, the Utah night lizard, and the Eucosma navojoensis moth are protected by the Endangered Species Act and existing land-use plans.”
Grand Staircase-Escalante’s new boundaries include one million acres in three zones, one of them separated from the other two.
In September, a version of Mr. Zinke’s report recommended changing the boundaries of six of the 27 monuments under review.
But he also recommended the creation of three new monuments. One was at Camp Nelson, Ky., a post where black soldiers trained during the Civil War. Another was the Mississippi home of the civil rights hero Medgar Evers.
The third was in an area called the Badger-Two Medicine, in Mr. Zinke’s home state of Montana.