In January, three Utah counties joined an ongoing lawsuit between environmentalists and the Trump administration (The Wilderness Society v. Trump). At stake is the productive use of millions of acres of land that was declared off limits when Presidents Clinton and Obama established illegal national monuments.
This is a story of what can go wrong when presidents abuse their power to do what makes them look good, or what radical environmentalists want them to do, but they don’t take into account how their actions can devastate the lives of regular people who live in the communities affected by their actions.
Three Utah counties, Kane, Garfield, and San Juan, each represented by Mountain States Legal Foundation, are located in the rural southeast corner of the state. Kane and Garfield suffered economic devastation due to the illegal creation and expansion of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument within their jurisdiction in 1996.
San Juan County, which contains the Bears Ears National Monument, would have followed suit had President Trump not acted when he did.
When President Clinton created the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, residents were told that the resulting tourism boom would more than make up for the loss of ranching, mining, logging, and other economic activities. However, the tourists never came and local economies never recovered.
Likewise, president Obama established the nearby Bears Ears National Monument in 2016, locking up another 1.3 million acres in the same area, promising even more lost jobs and economic devastation.
Both Clinton and Obama reached beyond their lawful authority to create these two national monuments.
Here’s what the law says: Originally, the President of the United States was delegated the authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” as national monuments on federal lands.
The Act also mandates that the designations “shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
These two monuments arguably failed to meet the criteria of valid landmarks in the first place. But even if there was a valid reason to create the monuments, there is no question that the size of the monuments clearly was not “confined to the smallest area compatible” with the areas’ care and management.
Clinton and Obama locked up well over 3 million acres by executive order—simply by signing a couple of papers.
The Act was originally passed to provide “protection to the large Indian ruins of the southwest.” Legislative history proves that Congress was concerned with “the preservation of the remains of the historic past.” And Congress specifically rejected broader versions of the law that included protection of scenic areas.
President Trump tried to remedy the problem and issued a presidential proclamation reducing the size of the two monuments, in accordance with the recommendations of the Secretary of the Interior and following a thorough study of the issue.
You won’t be surprised to learn that various environmental groups and tribal governments are challenging Trump’s authority to reduce the size of the monuments.
The legal question boils down to this: After a president creates a national monument with a presidential proclamation, can another president come along and reduce the size of that national monument with his own proclamation?
The clear answer is clearly “yes.”
President Trump not only has the legal authority, but also the moral obligation to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah, which were illegally created by Presidents Clinton and Obama, and which are having a devastating economic impact on the people who actually live and work in the area.
“It’s extremely important that the perspectives of the local communities most affected by these monument designations are heard,” said David McDonald, our lead attorney on the case.
And soon their voices will be heard. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has granted the three counties’ motions to intervene in the case, along with the intervention motions of the American and Utah Farm Bureaus, and the State of Utah.
The residents of rural Utah may not be well-connected or powerful, but their rights are just as important as those of any other American. Clinton lives outside New York City. Obama lives in Washington D.C. Perhaps they have never even thought about how their decisions have harmed the lives of hard-working people thousands of miles away.
It is high time for the powerful in Washington to be held accountable, and for the courts to recognize president Trump’s right to reduce the size of the monuments and rectify the wrong that has been done to the citizens of Utah who live and work in the area.