WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump ordered on Monday the largest reduction in public protected lands in US history, cutting more than 9,200 square kilometers (about 2 million acres) from two national monuments in Utah, a measure praised by conservatives in the state and harshly criticized by ecologists and Native Americans.
On a visit to Salt Lake City, Trump ordered Bears Ears, designated by former President Barack Obama, to be reduced in size from some 1.3 million acres to about 220,000 of federally protected land.
The president also decreed that Grand Staircase-Escalante, which was designated a national monument by the Bill Clinton administration, to be cut from 1.9 million acres to just over 1 million acres.
Trump blasted those who are of the opinion “that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington.”
“Guess what? They’re wrong,” he said, addressing an audience at the Utah State Capitol.
He said that his “historic” move was designed to reverse overstepping by the federal government and restore the rights to land in Utah to its citizens.
National monuments – which are federally protected lands – may be created by presidents without the approval of Congress, according to the 1906 Antiquities Act, although national parks require congressional approval.
Trump said that his predecessors in the White House “abused” that law to place ever more land and water under federal control, and he claimed that doing so took from local residents the ability to decide how best to use those territories.
The White House aim is to open up lands that heretofore were protected to facilitate public use of their roadways and pastures, as well as “healthy hunting and fishing,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters.
Grand Staircase-Escalante has coal deposits but Zinke denied that the decision to reduce its size had anything to do with mineral exploitation interests, adding that Bears Ears has no known oil or gas deposits.
The move sparked vehement criticism by various environmental defense organizations.
In addition, five Indian tribes who pressured to gain federal protection for Bears Ears – the Hopi, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Tribe, the Pueblo and the Ute Indian Tribe – are suing the Trump administration.
Navajo Nation vice president Jonathan Nez told MSNBC that Trump had overstepped his authority by reducing Bears Ears, saying “It’s a sad day in Indian country, and it’s sad day for Americans” and adding that “the Navajo Nation is going to take action and we are going to say ‘No’ to this overstepping (of) boundaries.”