The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion President Biden must end the desecration of Bears Ears

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland tours Bears Ears National Monument in Utah on Thursday.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland tours Bears Ears National Monument in Utah on Thursday. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
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PRESIDENT DONALD Trump began his stewardship of the nation’s public lands by drastically slashing Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, to the cheers of Utah politicians. Now that President Biden is in charge, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is reviewing the sites, Utah’s elected leaders are urging caution and deliberation, warning that Congress should be given a chance to legislate a permanent settlement on the area instead of leaving its fate to executive action.

Bears Ears cannot and should not wait for long.

The 1906 Antiquities Act allows the president to protect notable public lands without going through Congress. Until Mr. Trump, presidents had respected their predecessors’ monument designations. Congress often accepted the creation of national monuments as motivation to codify and expand protections, by, for example, eventually upgrading them to national parks.

But President Barack Obama’s designation of Bears Ears and President Bill Clinton’s of Grand Staircase were controversial; these Democratic presidents restricted the use of wide swaths of federal land in a deeply Republican state. President George W. Bush resisted the urge to slice up Grand Staircase; in fact, he created in his second term a massive national monument of his own around Hawaii. Mr. Trump was less judicious, in 2017 cutting Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase by half. Now activists are asking Mr. Biden to restore — or even expand — the old borders.

Wild swings in the size of these monuments at the start of each new administration are a poor way to oversee the land. But Utah’s leaders had their chance four years ago to advance a compromise bill setting permanent boundaries, and they failed to do so. Amid their applause when Mr. Trump hacked away at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, some of them could be heard calling for legislation — which would have curtailed the president’s power to designate national monuments. In the meantime, Bears Ears has been looted.

The Post’s Joshua Partlow reported Thursday that treasure hunters, vacationers, off-roaders and others have desecrated the area, which is rich in archaeological, scientific and natural wonders. It is becoming increasingly less so, as visitors pocket its shards of painted pots and drive ATVs over its fossil sites. Ms. Haaland hiked through the area Thursday with Utah leaders, seeing, according to the Interior Department, “cliff dwellings, pictographs, and other sacred sites that are located inside and outside of the national monument boundaries.” Mr. Obama’s protection of Bears Ears attracted massive new attention to the area; Mr. Trump’s wanton elimination of that protection enabled its defilement.

A group of senior Utah politicians warned Friday that “if the Administration decides to act unilaterally, a legislative solution that provides certainty will be nearly impossible to achieve.” Why? Congress loses no authority over public lands when the president designates a national monument.

If a compromise is possible, Mr. Biden should seek it, even if it means the borders might not be exactly where he would prefer. Codifying protections for the area in law is worth the negotiation. But with the weather warming and Americans eager to get out of their quarantines, the president cannot leave Bears Ears or Grand Staircase vulnerable for months longer. Delay would mean further violation of national treasures.

Read more:

Collin O’Mara: Trump compares himself to Theodore Roosevelt while assaulting his lifework

The Post’s View: Our national monuments deserve better

John Podesta: Trump’s chilling contempt for future generations

Orrin G. Hatch: It’s time to undo the federal land grab of Bears Ears

Mike Lee: Why Obama shouldn’t unilaterally declare a Bears Ears monument