Orrin G. Hatch, a Republican, represents Utah in the U.S. Senate.
In a remote corner of southern Utah, twin buttes tower over a rugged landscape of rolling foothills and jagged red rock. The two mesas, known as the Bears Ears, represent the latest battlefield in an escalating war over public lands — the results of which will have widespread implications for all Americans.
If you’ve never heard of Bears Ears, you will; if you don’t care, you should.
The Bears Ears are sacred to local Native American tribes, and the surrounding area is home to thousands of archaeological sites that detail the history of the land’s ancient inhabitants. That these cultural sites deserve protection is beyond dispute. But how they should be protected is a matter of significant disagreement.
Recognizing the intrinsic value of the archaeological and environmental features surrounding Bears Ears, I joined other members of Utah’s congressional delegation in working with locals, Native American tribes and government leaders to develop a plan to preserve this land for future generations. Together, we held countless meetings with hundreds of stakeholders over a three-year period to determine the best path forward.
In good faith, we coordinated with President Barack Obama on our plans. But in the twilight hours of his presidency, he betrayed us, foregoing our grass-roots effort in favor of a top-down monument designation — unprecedented in size and scope.
When Obama declared the Bears Ears National Monument, he ignored the years of work that Utah’s congressional delegation spent fighting to pass legislation to protect the region through a fair and open process. He ignored the state legislature and the governor. He ignored the stakeholders and local residents who were striving together to find a workable solution. He ignored the best interests of Utah and cast aside the will of the people — all in favor of a unilateral approach meant to satisfy the demands of far-left interest groups.
With the stroke of a pen, Obama locked away an astonishing 1.35 million acres, a geographic area larger than the total acreage of all five of Utah’s national parks combined. He did so citing his prerogative under the Antiquities Act — a century-old law intended to give presidents only limited authority to designate special landmarks. Instead of exercising restraint under the act, Obama — and indeed, many of his predecessors — wielded this law as a blunt instrument for executive overreach.
Understanding the history of the Antiquities Act is key to understanding what happened at Bears Ears. The Antiquities Act was a well-intentioned response to a serious problem: the looting and destruction of cultural and archaeological sites. When applied as intended, the law has been indispensable in preserving our nation’s rich cultural heritage. But the law has been abused by past presidents to advance a radical political agenda — all at the expense of the separation of powers.
By leveraging his authority under the Antiquities Act, Obama seized millions of acres of public land through his Bears Ears monument designation, violating both the spirit, and arguably, the letter of the law. Such actions represent the height of executive hubris.
It was never supposed to be this way. When Congress passed the Antiquities Act more than 100 years ago, the bill’s lead sponsor — Rep. John Lacey of Iowa — called “evil” the very notion that the president would use the law to designate more than a few square miles of land. Lacey would certainly be appalled if he saw how his bill has been exploited today. With his abuse of authority under the Antiquities Act, Obama perpetuated a dangerous precedent that undermines Congress’s constitutional obligation to manage lands within the federal domain. Unless we act now to reset this precedent, the consequences for future generations could be dire.
In the months to come, the American people should ask themselves: Do we want a president who is deferential to the people’s duly elected representatives in the management of public lands? Or do we want a self-appointed landlord who flouts Congress and the Constitution in the service of an extreme partisan agenda?
Although it may come as a surprise to his detractors, President Trump understands better than anyone the lasting damage wrought by past presidents under the Antiquities Act — and he stands ready to undo the harm brought about by their overreach. Indeed, in all my years of public service, I have never seen a president so committed to reining in the federal government and so eager to address the problems caused by these overbearing monument designations. When I raised the Bears Ears issue with the president in the Oval Office, he assured me that he stands ready to work with us to fix this disaster.
Working with the new administration, I believe we can set a new precedent regarding the management of federal lands — a precedent that restores the original meaning of the Antiquities Act, returns power to the people and rebuilds trust between the states and the federal government. In this endeavor, I look forward to working with state leaders and the Trump administration.