Obama adds two national monuments in Utah and Nevada: Will they stick?

President Obama established two areas in southern Nevada and Utah as national monuments, adding to his environmental legacy. But will Congress allow these recent designations?

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell looks in to a canyon at Gemini Bridges near Moab, Utah, during a July 2016 tour to meet with proponents and opponents to the "Bears Ears" monument proposal. President Barack Obama designated two national monuments Dec. 28, at sites in Utah and Nevada.

As President Obama nears the end of his eight-year tenure in the White House, he once again designated two new swaths of land as national monuments.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Mr. Obama said that his decision intends to "protect some of our country's most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archaeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes.”

The newly created Bears Ears National Monument, which covers approximately 1.35 million acres in southeast Utah, protects the land from further development, while the Gold Butte National Monument similarly protects 300,000 acres in southwest Nevada. 

Obama’s decision comes shortly after two major land conflicts over federally designated areas, that of the Bundy family standoffs in Nevada (from which the new Gold Butte National Monument is not far) and Oregon as well as the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota.

It also follows other recent environmental designations by the President; his ban on off-shore drilling in the Arctic, his decreed protection of 5,000 square miles of ocean canyon in New England, and his expansion of a marine sanctuary off the coast of Hawaii.

All of these events factor into additional questions about both the legitimacy of such decrees, as well as their longevity.

While all of the decisions have received support from environmentalists as well as native American tribes, they have also incurred a great deal of criticism from opposing factions.

Following the Cliven Bundy family standoff in Nevada, state and local legislators in both Utah and Nevada have pledged to fight any new federal designations on state lands, describing them as "land grabs" and "executive overreach."

Calling it a “midnight move,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, described the Bears Ears National Monument announcement “a slap in the face to the people of Utah, attempting to silence the voices of those who will bear the heavy burden it imposes... 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,” he said in a statement.

While all of Obama’s recent designations have raised durability questions, the predominantly pro-state’s rights, Republican governments of Nevada and Utah may pose the greatest possibility of legislative conflict and possible rejection.

On the opposite side of Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Sen. Harry Reid, the retiring Democrat from Nevada, has long supported a Gold Butte designation, calling the area “quintessential Nevada” with scenery and vistas “unlike anything else in the world,” according to the Los Angeles Times.  

The Gold Butte National Monument encompasses a major scenic and ecologically fragile environment, including “abundant rock art, ancient cliff dwellings, ceremonial sights, and countless other artifacts…[providing] extraordinary archaeological and cultural record”, according to the proclamation released by the White House. The archeological records refer to the presence of recently discovered tracks that predate dinosaurs within the Gold Butte National Monument. 

Navajo Nation President, Russell Begaye, said Wednesday that it was an exciting day for his tribe and for people of all cultures, according to Fox News. “We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge," He said. "The rocks, the winds, the land — they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.”

As strong and determined support builds on both sides, Obama’s recent conservation decrees may face challenges from Congress and the Trump administration. But such a challenge would be unprecedented, notes the Albuquerque Journal.

Doing away with national monuments created by presidential proclamation under the 110-year-old Antiquities Act has never been done, but also has never been legally tested. The act was passed in 1906 during the Republican administration of President Theodore Roosevelt, an early leader in the conservation movement.

Using the Antiquities Act, Obama has burnished his conservation credentials with the establishment of a total of 28 national monuments across the country. There were 19 designated during the Clinton administration. President George W. Bush created two.

“Our interpretation is he (Trump) would be unable to completely rescind a national monument under the Antiquities Act. He may have the authority to modify boundaries or acres, but we think this is extremely unlikely,” Mark Allison, executive director of the Albuquerque-based New Mexico Wilderness Alliance said in a phone interview.

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