President Joe Biden restored lands in three national monuments on Friday, describing it as “the easiest thing I’ve ever done as president.”
During a ceremony on the White House’s North Lawn, he signed three proclamations establishing the new safeguards, accompanied by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, lawmakers, and dozens of tribal leaders, conservationists, and environmental activists.
The orders restore – and even add – land to Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments, as well as New England’s Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument. Protections for all three locations were rolled back by former President Donald Trump.
“These protections provide a bridge to our past, but they also build a bridge to a safer, more sustainable future,” Biden said. “One where we strengthen our economy and pass on a healthy planet to our children and grandchildren.”
Hope Tribe Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva said the land that comprises Bears Ears National Monument is sacred to his tribe.
“It’s on the same level as any kind of church or foundation or facility,” he said. “It’s very important to the lifeline of all nations and all people.”
Haaland, the nation’s first Native American interior secretary, praised Biden for listening to Indigenous people concerning the protection of the lands.
“The president’s actions today write the new chapter that embraces Indigenous knowledge, ensures tribal leadership has a seat at the table and demonstrates that by working together, we can build a brighter future for us all.”
Officials said Biden will slightly enlarge 1.3 million acres in the Bears Ears National Monument that were previously under federal protection, as well as 1.8 million acres in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The restoration in Northeast Canyons and Seamounts — the first U.S. marine monuments in the Atlantic Ocean — will return protections to sea canyons and underwater mountains near the New England coast.
Former President Barack Obama created the boundaries for the controversial Bears Ears monument in late 2016, but Trump scaled them back the following year. Trump, in fact, removed more than 2 million acres from the monuments in Utah.
Trump’s scaling back federal protections opened up the lands, which are sacred to several Native American tribes, to mineral mining.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was critical of Biden’s move Friday, saying the Utah monuments were being “used as a political football between administrations.”
“The president squandered the opportunity to build consensus by working with stakeholders to find a permanent, legislative solution to resolve the longstanding dispute over the monuments’ boundaries & management, which would’ve brought certainty to and benefited all stakeholders,” he tweeted.
Environmental advocates applauded Biden’s decision.
“Bears Ears Will Be Protected! We applaud expected Biden administration actions to restore protections for Bears Ears and its one-of-a-kind and sacred landscape,” the Native American Rights Fund said in a statement.
“Bears Ears protections were established after years of negotiations, input, and advocacy on behalf of tribes, states, non-governmental organizations and the public. Those hard-earned protections were removed in 2017. The area subsequently saw a rash of exploitation and abuse by vandals, commercial interests and misinformed tourists.”
Republican politicians in Utah oppose the move to restore protections to the monuments.
“We expected and hoped for closer collaboration between our state and national leaders, especially on matters that directly impact Utah and our citizens,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Attorney General Sean Reyes, state Senate President J. Stuart Adams and state House Speaker Brad Wilson said in a joint statement.
“The president’s decision to enlarge the monuments again is a tragic missed opportunity. It 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.”