USA First Look

Could Obama’s newly designated monuments face legal opposition?

Local officials aren’t happy with President Obama’s decision to designate large swathes of land in Utah and Nevada as national monuments, saying the move is an overstep of his power. 

A young protester demonstrates with others against the new Bears Ear National Monument in Montecello, Utah, on Thursday.
Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP | Caption

At least one of two land areas deemed federally protected monuments could face legal opposition locally, with officials saying President Obama has overstepped his authority in preserving them.

Mr. Obama on Wednesday declared the Bears Ears National Monument, a swath of land that sprawls for 1.35 million acres in southeast Utah, and the Gold Butte National Monument, which guarantees the preservation of 300,000 acres in southwest Nevada, as environmentally-protected national monuments under the Antiquities Act, barring further development or fossil fuel exploration in the areas that are sacred to Native American tribes. With just weeks left in office, the play was one that would solidify Obama’s legacy as a protector of the environment and friend to Native American tribes.

In Utah, officials aren’t happy with the decision, and the state’s Attorney General Sean Reyes says he plans to take legal action against the president’s designation.

“It is extremely disappointing that President Obama has declared another national monument here in Utah, ignoring the voices of so many in our state, particularly those closest to the designated space,” Mr. Reyes said.

"My office is working closely with the Governor's office, federal and state legislators, and San Juan County to file a lawsuit challenging this egregious overreach by the Obama Administration,” he added. “This case is different from other past challenges by states and counties and we are confident in our chances of success. But the courtroom is not our only option. Our federal delegation is working hard to defund the designation or rescind it altogether.”

Reyes isn’t the only GOP state official to take issue with the declaration. Several lawmakers have decried the move as a restrictive measure for development and an overstep of the president’s authority.

“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,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah said in a statement. “Instead, the president's midnight proclamation ... disregarded the economic development and multi-use provisions necessary for a balanced compromise.”

But Native Americans who hold the land sacred felt as if their pleas had finally received recognition.

“We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants, and a place of prayer and sacredness,” Russell Begaye, president of the Naqwavajo Nation, told reporters on Wednesday. “These places — the rocks, the wind, the land — they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.”

Residents are more divided on the issue, with 46 percent saying they don’t want to see it reversed, 40 percent saying Mr. Trump should revoke it, and 14 percent remaining undecided, according to a poll from Utah Policy.

Challenging a monument’s legal status isn’t an easy feat. Reyes noted that past attempts to reserve national monument designations have failed, but said this case was a more extreme, different scenario that won’t withstand scrutiny in court. He also vowed to work with the incoming administration under President-elect Donald Trump to reserve the monument declarations.

“Utah's public lands deserve stewardship, but through the appropriate avenue of Congressional action with real participation of state, local and tribal leaders," he said.