The Biden administration says it has begun reaching out to elected officials, Native American tribes and other stakeholders as part of its review of the Trump administration’s controversial rollback of national monuments, kick-starting a process that is widely expected to result in President Joe Biden fulfilling a campaign promise to restore the protected sites.
As part of a sweeping first-day executive order to “protect public health and the environment and restore science,” Biden ordered the Interior Department to review President Donald Trump’s proclamations to dismantle three protected monuments, two in southern Utah and one off the Atlantic coast. Biden has slammed the monument cuts as among Trump’s “assaults on America’s natural treasures.”
In 2017, the Trump administration launched a review of recent national monument designations made under the Antiquities Act of 1906. That process featured administration officials cozying up to monument opponents, cherry-picking data and dismissing overwhelming public support for maintaining protected sites, and ended with Trump carving more than 2 million acres away from two sites in southern Utah.
The boundary of Bears Ears, a 1.35 million-acre landscape that several tribes consider sacred, was cut by 85%. Nearby, Grand Staircase-Escalante, a sweeping 1.87-million-acre monument rich in dinosaur fossils and archeological sites, was cut roughly in half. Later, in June 2020, Trump opened the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, a 4,900-square-mile protected site off the East Coast, to commercial fishing.
Now, in a swing of the political pendulum, the Biden administration is reviewing the Trump-era changes. The Interior Department said Wednesday that discussions with stakeholders, including elected officials, tribal nations and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, would begin shortly and help the administration determine whether the monument boundaries and protections should be restored.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, made up of the five Native American tribes that petitioned the Obama administration to grant Bears Ears monument status, has said it was largely sidelined from the Trump review process. It and other groups later filed lawsuits challenging Trump’s decision to shrink the boundary, arguing that Congress, not the president, has the sole legal power to shrink, rescind or weaken protections for monuments designated under the Antiquities Act. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has yet to rule in the consolidated case.
Patrick Gonzales-Rogers, the tribal coalition’s executive director, told HuffPost by phone Wednesday that the group looks forward to meeting with the Interior Department and having a chance to participate in substantive conversations about the future of Bears Ears, something he says was absent from the Trump-era review.
“Their feeble attempts at consultation seemed transactional and optical at best,” Gonzales-Rogers said, adding that the ultimate shrinking of the monument felt “scripted.”
Biden’s executive order gave the Interior Department 60 days to submit a report with its findings and recommendations. The agency is conducting its review alongside the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
The agency did not say which stakeholders it has been in contact with so far.
Among the many vocal critics of the Trump administration’s monument cuts is Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and Biden’s nominee to lead the Interior Department.
“The Trump Administration fails to acknowledge the incredible cultural history of indigenous people on this continent,” Haaland wrote on Twitter after Trump promised lengthy prison sentences for anyone who destroys or dismantles a monument or statue of a slave-owning president or leader of the Confederacy. Trump himself dismantled or desecrated four federally protected land and water monuments with significant cultural, archeological and natural resources.
If confirmed, Haaland would become the first-ever Indigenous Cabinet secretary at any federal agency. And she would likely step into the agency as it works to complete its review of Trump’s monument rollbacks.
Haaland’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is set for Tuesday morning. National monuments will almost certainly be a topic of discussion.