It was one of Donald Trump’s most controversial early moves as president: to radically shrink two national monuments in the American west.
Now indigenous peoples are hopeful that Joe Biden will undo that decision – and more broadly effect a sea change in how the US treats the interests of tribal nations.
On the campaign trail, the president-elect pledged to reverse Trump’s reduction of two monuments in Utah, Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument and Bear’s Ears national monument.
Adding to the hopes of conservationists and indigenous tribes is Biden’s recent nomination of the New Mexico congresswoman Deb Haaland to head the US interior department, which oversees many public lands and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Biden has pledged to make his administration the most diverse in the country’s history, and the nomination of Haaland to head the interior department is part of that promise.
Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, would be the first indigenous person appointed to a cabinet position and is widely expected to work closely with tribes, including those in the coalition that helped establish Bear’s Ears in the first place.
Bear’s Ears, designated by Barack Obama, and Escalante, designated by Bill Clinton, were reduced in 2017 by Trump by a combined 2m acres. Bear’s Ears alone was reduced by a total of 85%.
While many locals who saw the monument designations as federal intrusion cheered Trump’s move to reduce the boundaries, environmentalists, archeologists and tribal citizens with ties to the land were outraged at the loss of federal resources to protect the lands. The conflict led to a federal lawsuit challenging the presidential power to reduce national monuments.
“The decision to take a hatchet to protections for Bear’s Ears was a direct affront to the tribal nations,” said the former senator Tom Udall, whose term ended this week and was vice-chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. “We must use science to guide us in preserving high-value places that protect the critical biodiversity we all depend on.”
Many tribal administrators and conservationists are hopeful that if Haaland is confirmed as head of the interior department, it would mean more tribal involvement in decisions regarding the management of public lands across the country, including the possibility of more national monument designations. Biden has committed to conserve 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030 by power of executive order.
The history of who has access to lands in the south-western US, and how they are treated, means that whatever path Biden takes will be fraught. Many arguments in this part of the country concerning national monuments are grounded in the history of how Mormon settlers took lands through force, as well as in government policies, boarding schools and foster care systems that stripped indigenous families of their traditions and languages.
Both the distrust of federal control harbored by Mormon settlers and their descendants, as well as the grievances of indigenous peoples subjected to genocide, are at the center of every discussion.
“I’m worried that a presidential move will exacerbate those feelings, just like they have in preceding times with both sides, President Trump and President Obama,” said John Curtis, the Republican congressman whose district encompasses Bear’s Ears. Curtis, as well as his Republican colleague Chris Stewart, whose district contains Escalante, has advocated for keeping the reduced monument boundaries.
Trump evoked the Antiquities Act, a piece of 1906 legislation authorizing presidents to designate national monuments, to reduce Bear’s Ears and Escalante. The legal challenge to the president’s power to use the act to reduce boundaries is also still making its way through the courts. Yet future presidents could use the same act to re-expand them.
Curtis said he worries the power of a presidential decree to change the boundaries will lead to further conflict and uncertainty for locals concerned that federal protections mean less access to hunting and fishing. “We’re in this cycle of presidential decisions that are changed or reversed, and that’s a really unhealthy way to deal with the problems down there.”
Many Native peoples – such as the Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Ute, and Uintah and Ouray Ute – counter that their hunting and fishing rights were not up for debate when the lands were originally taken from them. Now, as those lands face further degradation owing to diminished protections and increased public access, tribal leaders and citizens are again calling for more Native consultation in their management.
National monument status comes with federal resources for park staff to manage and care for lands containing culturally and historically significant artifacts and places. Lands that now fall outside the reduced monuments have lost those safeguards.
“It’s been kind of a head-scratcher as to why some of these sites were protected and why some were left out. From an archeological perspective it doesn’t make sense at all,” said Lyle Balenquah, an archeologist and a member of the Hopi tribe. “How are we going to manage these in the long term if only a portion of them are protected while others are left out to fend for themselves?”