A Monumental Fight

January 19, 2018
By Katy Steinmetz for TIME, adapted by TFK editors
RISE ABOVE Indian Creek, in Bears Ears, is a popular spot for rock climbing.

In December, President Donald Trump traveled to Utah. Supporters greeted him at the airport. But protesters waited for him at the state capitol. The purpose of the trip was to announce that two of Utah’s national monuments would be shrunk. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments were each cut by about 1 million acres. This followed a recent review of protected areas. It set the stage for a legal fight.

Different Views

Presidents have been proclaiming national monuments since 1906. That is when Congress passed the Antiquities Act. Theodore Roosevelt, who was president, declared 18 national monuments. Such sites must contain objects of “historic or scientific” interest.

Presidents have declared 157 national monuments in the past 112 years. These include a battlefield in Montana and an African burial ground in New York City. The designations come with rules about how the land can be used. The rules spark debate around public space, private rights, and the role of the federal government.

TAKING A STAND FOR LAND Utah’s state capitol is surrounded by protesters on December 2, 2017.


Supporters of national monuments feel the rules preserve some of the nation’s most important places. Protection helps ensure the land can be used for scientific exploration, historical research, and public enjoyment. Protection also increases tourism.

Others take a different view. They believe designating monuments blocks access to the land’s resources. They say it prevents them from using the land for private industries, such as drilling and logging. Those activities can support many jobs in the community. Rules might also prevent recreational activities, like fishing.

Ryan Zinke is the U.S. secretary of the interior. He led the review of 27 monuments from Maine to California. In August, he recommended that the boundaries of six be changed. Several groups said they would sue if Trump took this advice. They argue that the president does not have the power to significantly change monuments set aside by previous presidents.

The environmental group Earthjustice filed a lawsuit. The group is challenging the reduction of Grand Staircase-Escalante. The area is rich in dinosaur fossils. Five Native American tribes have filed a lawsuit challenging the reduction of Bears Ears. The area includes rock art and cliff dwellings sacred to the tribes. The outdoor clothing company Patagonia is also suing. Lawyers for the company say the president does not have the authority to scale back these monuments.

HOUSE ON FIRE This ancient cliff dwelling sits within the protected boundaries of Bears Ears.


How Big?

The size of protected land is a matter of debate. The Antiquities Act says monuments must be the “smallest area compatible” with protecting the objects of interest they contain. Some say the act has been misused to set aside areas that are bigger than they need to be. President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears in December 2016. He made it bigger than the state of Delaware.

In 1920, the Supreme Court ruled that President Roosevelt had the right to set aside the entire Grand Canyon for protection. (Congress later made it a national park.) Other courts have found that the president has the authority to decide what deserves protection.

ANCIENT ROCK ART Utah is home to many historic panels of pictographs. Only some are in areas that are still protected.


Trump is not the first president to shrink monuments. But a president’s ability to reduce or do away with a monument has never been challenged in court. Experts disagree about how much power a president has to undo the actions of past presidents.

“We don’t want the land to be destroyed,” says James Adakai. He is a member of the Navajo Nation. He lives across the river from Bears Ears. “It’s like saying, ‘Let’s shrink Mount Rushmore.’” That is the South Dakota mountainside carved with the faces of four presidents. One is of Roosevelt, the first president to designate a national monument, more than a century ago.

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