Republican House lawmakers representing Utah have introduced two bills intended to provide legislative backing for President Trump’s moves to shrink two monuments in the state and serve as a backstop against legal challenges to Trump’s actions.
“Now is the time for Congress to take the next step forward,” Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a briefing for reporters Tuesday with fellow Republican Utah Reps. John Curtis and Chris Stewart. “This legislation will set in motion what we need to do to bring finality to the situation.”
Trump on Monday announced during a visit to Utah’s capitol that he will shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, framing the decision as a rebuke of former President Barack Obama's use of executive authority to set aside public land for protection.
The Trump administration and congressional Republicans say previous presidents abused their authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to unilaterally declare national monuments, setting aside larger and larger swaths of public land, limiting development opportunities and stifling local control.
Native American tribes and environmental groups have filed separate lawsuits challenging Trump’s move, arguing that the Antiquities Act does not explicitly give authority to presidents to reduce the size of national monuments, although some have done so on a limited scale.
The concept has not been tested in court.
“It is our hope what we are doing makes those lawsuits irrelevant,” Stewart said.
Trump is reducing the 1.35 million acres of Bears Ears, established by Obama, to 201,876 acres, and Grand Staircase, created by former President Bill Clinton in 1996, from 1.7 million acres to 1 million.
Under Trump’s proposal, Bears Ears would be divided into two smaller monuments: Indian Creek National Monument and the Shash Jaa National Monument.
Grand Staircase-Escalante would be split into three areas: Grand Staircase National Monument, Kaiparowits National Monument, and Escalante Canyons National Monument.
The Utah Republicans support those moves and aim to enshrine the changes into law, while adding new rules and protections.
The first bill, introduced by Curtis on Monday night, provides clarity about what the rules should be at the Shash Jaa and Indian Creek monuments, which Trump has proposed as replacements for Bears Ears.
Curtis’ proposal would permit tribes to co-manage the monuments and create the “first-ever protection enforcement team” for antiquities inside the newly designated monuments.
“The Obama [Bears Ears] proclamation allowed Native Americans to have an advisory role,” Bishop said. “This proposal is not a token advisory role. It’s giving real authority to these groups.”
The bill would maintain the Obama administration’s moratorium against mineral withdrawals in the entire 1.35 million acres that Obama had created as Bears Ears. Obama’s monument designation forbid new mining and drilling but allowed cattle grazing and hunting.
Environmental groups have argued that shrinking Bears Ears could lead energy developers to seize on the land removed from protection to mine for oil and natural gas. But there is limited opportunity for oil and gas drilling in Bears Ears and the area around it, the Utah Republicans say, and their bill would prevent it.
“A lot of people are worried the changes [by Trump] mean all of a sudden oil rigs will be popping up all over place,” Curtis said. “This ensures this can’t and won’t happen.”
The second bill, introduced Tuesday by Stewart, provides a management structure for the revised Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments proposed by Trump and creates a new national park within one of them.
The Escalante Canyons national monument would become a national park, the sixth in Utah, slated to exist on about 100,000 acres, although the exact boundaries remain in flux.
National parks are similar to monuments, but the former can be created only by Congress.
Stewart’s bill also establishes a management council made up of tribal members, local stakeholders and government experts to implement a comprehensive management plan, while ensuring “protection of bona fide antiquities” and “safeguarding traditional uses, recreation and public access.”
In contrast to the Bears Ears legislation, Stewart’s bill would allow oil and gas drilling in the new Grand Staircase monuments and national park, where coal reserves exist.
“There is a meaningful difference,” Stewart said. “We know some of cleanest coal in the country is within the previous boundaries of [Grand Staircase] set by Clinton. There are not oil and gas resources in Bears Ears. We are not being inconsistent.”
Bishop said he expects the House to consider both bills in January. Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch of Utah are planning to introduce companion legislation, Bishop said.