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Conservation News

President Biden Orders Review of Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante Boundaries

Proclamation could be first step to restoring national monuments to their original sizes.

President Joe Biden will reconsider the Trump administration’s controversial rollback of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, the White House announced in a sweeping day-one executive order on Wednesday, setting the stage for a potential return to the monuments’ original borders.

The proclamation directs the Secretary of the Interior, in consultation with other cabinet members and tribal governments, “to determine whether restoration of the monument boundaries and conditions that existed as of January 20, 2017, would be appropriate” and report their findings to the president within 60 days. Among other changes, the order also instructs the secretary to temporarily halt oil and gas development within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and revokes the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Originally proposed by a coalition of five tribes—the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Uintah and Ouray Ute—Bears Ears National Monument protected 1.35 million acres of canyons, sandstone buttes, and cultural sites when President Barack Obama designated it in December 2016. From the beginning, Utah’s congressional delegation fought the designation publicly and privately. The New York Times later reported that in March 2017, one of Senator Orrin Hatch’s aides had sent an email to a senior Interior Department official suggesting the agency carve potentially valuable oil and gas deposits out of the monument. 

In December 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order shrinking Bears Ears by 85%. (Grand Staircase-Escalante, designated in 1996, lost half of its area.) The backlash from the monuments’ supporters was swift. Within days, the five tribal governments that had proposed Bears Ears’ designation filed a lawsuit challenging Trump’s authority to shrink the monument. Patagonia, alongside the nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah, filed its own lawsuit; the company later changed its homepage to a black screen with the text “The President Stole Your Land.”

On Wednesday, the Outdoor Industry Association praised Biden’s decision to review the monuments’ boundaries.

“The health of people, our planet and our economy is tied to opportunities for everyone to experience the benefits of these treasured natural landscapes,” the group wrote on Twitter. “We look forward to working with this new administration to ensure their protection.”