President Donald Trump's rare move to shrink two large national monuments in Utah triggered another round of outrage among Native American leaders who vowed to fight in court to preserve protections for lands they consider sacred.
Environmental and conservation groups and a group of tribes joined the battle Monday and began filing lawsuits that ensure that Trump's announcement is not the final chapter of the years-long public lands battle. The court cases are likely to drag on for years, maybe even into a new presidency.
Trump decided to reduce Bears Ears — created last December by President Barack Obama — by about 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante — designated in 1996 by President Bill Clinton — by nearly half. The moves earned him cheers from Republican leaders in Utah who lobbied him to undo protections they considered overly broad.
Conservation groups called it the largest elimination of protected land in American history.
The Navajo Nation was one of five tribes that formed a coalition that spent years lobbying Obama to protect Bears Ears, home to ancient cliff dwellings and an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites. Native Americans visit the area to perform ceremonies, collect herbs and wood for medicinal and spiritual purposes, and do healing rituals.
A lawsuit from the coalition of the Hopi, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni tribes and Navajo Nation was filed late Monday night.
Earlier Monday, Earthjustice filed the first of several expected lawsuits, calling the reduction of Grand Staircase-Escalante an abuse of the president's power that jeopardizes an area full of dinosaur fossils. Some of the fossils sit on a plateau that is home to one of the country's largest known coal reserves, which could now be open to mining. Earthjustice is representing eight conservation groups.
Trump, in a speech at Utah's Capitol with the governor and other politicians, said the state's lands should not be managed by "very distant bureaucrats located in Washington."
"Your timeless bond with the outdoors should not be replaced with the whims of regulators thousands and thousands of miles away," Trump said.
The decision marks the first time in a half-century that a president has undone these types of land protections.
Trump's move followed months of lobbying by Utah's mostly Republican officials who said the two monuments closed off the area to energy development and other access.
Environmental and tribal groups say the designations are needed to protect important archaeological and cultural resources, especially the more than 2,030-square-mile Bears Ears site. Trump's plan would reduce Bears Ears to 315 square miles. Grand Staircase-Escalante would be reduced from nearly 3,000 square miles to 1,569 square miles.
Both were among a group of 27 monuments that Trump ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review this year.
Democrats and environmentalists accuse Trump and Zinke of engaging in a secret process aimed at helping industry groups that have donated to Republican political campaigns.
No president has tried to eliminate a monument, but some have reduced or redrawn the boundaries on 18 occasions, according to the National Park Service. The most recent instance came in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy slightly downsized Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico.