The clock is ticking. Before the United States and the world is snapped by political whiplash on January 20, 2017, the Obama Administration is working quickly to secure its environmental legacy by creating new national monuments in environmentally sensitive areas of the Western United States: Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and Gold Butte National Monument. As usual, the land on which these new public resources have been created has been fiercely contested for their political and economic significance. President Obama has nonetheless pushed forward with the national monuments to cap off an ambitious and sometimes controversial environmental agenda that his successor will likely seek to dismantle.
The establishment of Bears Ears National Monument in the Four Corners region of Utah, a state where two-thirds of the land is owned by the federal government, represents a victory for the American Indian tribes that have called the region home. In an historic first, an inter-tribal commission composed of members from the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Pueblo of Zuni will be established to provide management input of the national monument, which contains sacred sites, ancient petroglyphs, and remnants of Pueblo structures over 3,500 years old. Most elected officials in Utah are opposed to the site’s protection, though the state’s congressional delegation had supported a scaled-back plan. “The midnight move is 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,” said Republican US Rep. Jason Chaffetz. Chaffetz intends to seek assistance from President-elect Trump in abolishing the national monument.
The Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada is similarly packed with politics. Supported by retiring Democratic Senator Harry Reid but opposed by Nevada’s Republican Representatives, the national monument outside of Las Vegas will preserve 300,000 acres of ecologically sensitive, pristine land that contains important archaeological sites and rare fossils. Gold Butte carries special significance because of its proximity to the site of the armed standoff led by rancher Cliven Bundy in 2014.
The establishment of these national monuments “protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archaeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes,” said President Obama in a statement. “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.” Through authority granted under the 1906 Antiquities Act, President Obama has protected more land than any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His successor and his supporters seek to use the Act, which allows for the creation of national monuments without congressional approval, to unilaterally remove protections, a policy that has not been attempted in modern times.