This week, President Obama conducted one of his last acts as President of the United States, creating two new national monuments in Nevada and Utah, in order to protect sacred tribal land.
President Obama stated:
“Today, I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes.
“Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes. Importantly, today I have also established a Bears Ears Commission to ensure that tribal expertise and traditional knowledge help inform the management of the Bears Ears National Monument and help us to best care for its remarkable national treasures.”
The two areas that are now protected are the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada. Both are owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
In Nevada, the newly protected land is close to the site of the Bundy standoff, where armed militia clashed with federal authorities. Turning this land into a national monument shuts down any new leases for mining or oil and natural gas exploration.
Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, praised the new designation, though the tribe had hoped for a larger section of land:
“This is an exciting day for the Navajo Nation, for our traditional leaders, for elected leaders across the Navajo Nation, and also the tribes that live in area who have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants and a place of prayer and sacredness.”
The section of land now protected in southern Utah has been part of an ongoing battle for years, with Republicans in the state wanting to mine it for various resources. Native Americans have fought hard against Utah Republicans in attempts to secure the culturally-significant areas located on the land.
Utah state Senator Mike Lee has promised to “undo” these moves:
I will work tirelessly with Congress & incoming Trump administration to honor the will of Utahns and undo this monument designation. #utpol
— Mike Lee (@SenMikeLee) December 28, 2016
Utah’s House Natural Resources Committee Chairman, Republican Rob Bishop, claims that it is within Trump’s power. However, under the Antiquities Act, a new President cannot simply undo the protections imposed on water or land by a previous president.
According to Christie Goldfuss, the managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, “The Antiquities Act gives the president the authority to create monuments, but does not provide explicit authority to undo them.” However, it doesn’t stop the Trump Administration from making changes to the act, limiting future presidents from designating land and water protections.
Many are grateful to President Obama, who has protected more land and water than any other president under the Antiquities Act. Others say he hasn’t gone far enough, staying out of significant fights such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, where Obama conducted a “wait and see” approach.