ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Today, President Biden restored the boundaries of two sprawling national monuments in Utah - Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante. Both were dramatically reduced under former President Trump. Biden also reimposed protections for a marine conservation area off the coast of New England. Bears Ears has become a flashpoint in the national environmental movement. Native American tribes are marking today's move as a victory in a long battle to protect the area. Here's Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the nation's first Indigenous cabinet member at the White House.
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DEB HAALAND: Bears Ears is a living landscape. When I've been there, I've felt the warmth and joy of ancestors who have cared for this special place since time immemorial.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Kirk Siegler has more on the story.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: As a boy in the 1960s, Mark Maryboy remembers his parents taking him to what is now the Bears Ears National Monument, as Navajo elders explained to a visiting presidential candidate, Robert Kennedy, why the land needed protecting. But it wasn't until the last months of the Obama administration that this public land got extra protections. A year later, President Trump, also by executive order, slashed the size of Bears Ears by 85%.
MARK MARYBOY: (Laughter) It is - it's just like that one movie. I can't remember what it's called - "Groundhog Day."
SIEGLER: Maryboy is the former Navajo leader who's credited with founding the modern push for protections at Bears Ears. He says the Biden administration's announcement today is a cause for celebration. Tribes in the Four Corners region have long warned that this stunning desert land is being desecrated by looters and threatened by mining and grazing. Maryboy says the land is rich with ancient artifacts and rock art on remote canyon walls. It also has camping, hunting and burial grounds sacred to tribes.
MARYBOY: These are some of the things that Navajos respect and consider - it's a part of their religion. And it's just like a church with the Anglo population.
SIEGLER: But in many ways, the battle over Bears Ears and neighboring Grand Staircase, which was designated nearly 25 years ago by President Clinton, reflects a long-standing power struggle over who controls federal public land in the West. About 2/3 of Utah is federally owned, and there is legal ambiguity over whether presidents can keep using a relatively obscure law from 1986, known as the Antiquities Act, to protect large swaths of land. These are not national parks, which would require an act of Congress to designate.
Utah Governor Spencer Cox called Biden's decision a tragic missed opportunity. He said he's considering all legal options. Cox and other opponents point out that the act is intended to protect the smallest amount of land possible. Bears Ears is 1.3 million acres. Here's Utah Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson recently on Salt Lake's KSTU TV.
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DEIDRE HENDERSON: We were hoping for Congress to help us figure this out instead of using the Antiquities Act. I think there will have to be some legal action taken.
SIEGLER: Utah leaders complain these sweeping monument designations undermine future coal mining in the Grand Staircase and expansions of cattle grazing and uranium mining around Bears Ears. Mark Maryboy, the Navajo elder, says Biden's move today probably doesn't end this fight, but he hopes it will better protect ancestral tribal lands from corporate interests.
MARYBOY: Navajos are poor people, and a lot of them work in the mine, and they died of cancer. And my father was one of those people. So we don't want that to continue. We don't want to see that anymore.
SIEGLER: The one thing that all sides in this fight agree on is that Bears Ears has seen an explosion of visitors lately, which, unmanaged, is its own threat to the environment. President Biden is pledging to assign more rangers to the monuments and bolster visitor infrastructure.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News.
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