WASHINGTON, Dec. 28, 2016 – President Barack Obama today announced the creation of two new national monuments, ensuring the protection of 1.65 million acres of federal land in Utah and Nevada.
White House officials said Obama had hoped that Congress would act to enshrine the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada and that he only acted after the House and Senate failed to do so.
“Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes,” Obama said in a statement. “Following years of public input and various proposals to protect both of these areas, including legislation and a proposal from tribal governments in and around Utah, these monuments will protect places that a wide range of stakeholders all agree are worthy of protection.”
Bears Ears, named after two mountain peaks, is the largest designation (1.35 million acres) and the most controversial. A commission made up of five representatives from Native American tribes will manage the national monument, and mining, fracking and oil drilling will be barred, said Christy Goldfuss, managing director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
The Hopi Nation, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, and Zuni Tribe will each elect one commission member.
“Since taking office, President Obama has continued to respond to local communities and act when Congress has failed to do so,” Goldfuss said in a teleconference with reporters.
A White House statement stressed that the Bears Ears designation is based on legislation introduced by Utah Republican Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz. The lawmakers did author the Public Lands Initiative bill that would have protected the Bears Ears, but Chaffetz was sharply critical of Obama’s action.
"After years of painstaking negotiations with a diverse coalition, Utah had a comprehensive bipartisan solution on the table that would have protected the Bears Ears and provided a balanced solution,” Chaffetz said in a statement. “Instead, the president's midnight proclamation cherrypicked provisions of the Public Lands Initiative and disregarded the economic development and multi-use provisions necessary for a balanced compromise.”
Chaffetz was critical of Obama’s use of the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect the land by proclaiming it an historic landmark and vowed to undo the effort.
"We look forward to working with President-elect Trump to follow through on his commitment to repeal midnight regulations,” Chaffetz said. “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.”
But Goldfuss said that would not be possible.
“The Antiquities Act gives the president the authority to create monuments, but does not provide explicit authority to undo them,” she said. “No president has actually undone a monument created by a prior president and courts at all levels have broadly upheld the president’s authority to designate national monuments.”
One ardent supporter of Obama’s proclamation is Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation.
“With this step to protect and conserve these irreplaceable lands, he has set a new precedent for national monument tribal collaborative management,” Begaye said about Obama in a statement. “And he has strengthened the relationship between our Navajo and American nations. As both Navajo and American, I am proud our President listened to a sovereign appeal and acted to preserve our sacred land for future generations.”
USDA noted in a press release that both designated areas contain land sacred to Native American tribes, important cultural sites, and fragile wildlife habitat. The monument designations maintain currently authorized uses of the land that do not harm the resources protected by the monument, including tribal access and traditional collection of plants and firewood, off-highway vehicle recreation, hunting and fishing and authorized grazing, it said. The monument designation also does not affect valid existing rights for oil, gas, and mining operations, military training operations, and utility corridors.
“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 Interior Secretary Sally 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.”
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