Of Monumental Importance: Coalitions Amass to Defend and Oppose Obama’s New Monument Designations

Of Monumental Importance: Coalitions Amass to Defend and Oppose Obama’s New Monument Designations

By Hannah Duus, Staff Contributor

In one of his last actions as President of the United States, Barack Obama established two new monuments in Utah and Nevada in a move that has already attracted both supporters and detractors. His recent designations are divisive: they are seen by some as an important conservation and environmental accomplishment and by others as a federal power overstep and a land grab.[1] The numbers are staggering: in Nevada, he protected 300,000 acres around Gold Butte and in Utah, he protected 1.35 million acres around the Bears Ears Buttes.[2] Obama invoked the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the Executive the power to establish or expand national monuments, to create these monuments,[3] as an alternative to Congress’s time-consuming process of creating a national park.[4] The Act was originally signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt to guard Native American sites against looting.[5]

The designations were made close to the end of Obama’s presidency, likely as an attempt to further cement his environmental and conservation record before a shift in control of both administration and party in the White House. The designation of the acres as monuments will protect the specified lands and waters from development and destruction.[6] While the Antiquities Act’s power to create monuments has been utilized by presidents of both political parties, Obama’s use of the power in this instance promises to be controversial and polarizing.[7] In the days after the monumental designations, the line in the sand is being drawn clearly between the diverse coalitions amassing on both sides: Native American tribes and environmental activists support the designations, while Republican lawmakers in the two states and some of their rural constituents, like ranchers, are gearing up to oppose them.[8] The advocacy and strength of each coalition may determine the future existence of these monuments.

The creation of the monuments was the result of the organized action of a set of groups. Native American tribes that had long worked to have their land protected by the federal government saw the new monuments as cause for celebration, as their “strong tribal advocacy and years of work by local people” had succeeded.[9] Some of the land now protected is considered sacred by area Native American tribes and in Utah especially, a coordinated group of tribes advocated for the designation, though they had asked for larger protected areas.[10] The action by Obama necessitated tribal and federal government coordination and cooperation, and is a landmark achievement for the Native American sovereignty movement.[11] In Utah, the designation of Bears Ears as a national monument will create a “first-of-its-kind tribal commission of representatives” from five area Native American tribes that will allow them to oversee the uses and protection of the land.[12] Accordingly, these tribes, who have had differences of opinion in the past, will put aside their historical disagreements to coordinate the future of the now-protected land.[13] In Nevada, Gold Butte was a victory for conservationists, environmentalists, and retiring Democratic Senator Harry Reid, who all saw an expansion of the Las Vegas metropolitan area as a threat to unique habitats and species in the Mojave Desert.[14] As a monument, the land is now protected from further development. Besides environmental groups and Native American tribes, Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company, has emerged as another strong ally for the monument designations.[15] The CEO said that the company was prepared to use its economic power to battle Utah officials’ plans to overturn Obama’s designation there.[16] Thus, a coalition is forging between tribes and the environmentally-concerned that will need to face the coalition emerging on the other side of the issue.

Ranchers and conservative politicians comprise some of the most visible portions of the alliance that plans to attack the new designations. Some of the most vocal opposition the monuments could face is from another protest-like crusade: one like the armed standoff that was waged by the Bundy family of ranchers in Oregon as they tried to take over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge from federal control.[17] The family contested the federal government’s authority over the land and took action outside of the courts.[18] Ranchers who have leased land from the government for their livestock are concerned that this landscape will be too drastically changed by these monumental protections, and believe that the federal government should not limit access to this land.[19]

Conservative politicians are gearing up for their own legislative and judicial fights. Politicians in Utah, including state elected officials and the congressional delegation, have already promised a battle over these declarations and have labeled them “land grabs” and accused Obama of executive overreach.[20] Utah Senator Orrin Hatch labeled the designations, “an astonishing and egregious abuse of executive power.”[21] Conservatives in Utah and Nevada have also reacted strongly to the designations’ potential restriction on access to oil and gas.[22] The coming political administration shift in the White House also threatens to thwart the monuments’ protections.[23] President-Elect Donald Trump may oppose the monument designations, as he has vowed to overturn much of Obama’s work,[24] but his stance on this national monument issue has not been clearly articulated.[25] This particular overturn will be difficult for Trump because no president has undone a predecessor’s Antiquities Act designation in 110 years and the law does not explicitly bestow authority to undo a designation.[26] The Act is silent on the rescission issue and there has not yet been an attempt to overturn another’s designations, so there is no clear precedent for settling this legal dispute.[27] That legal battle must await resolution. The Republican-controlled Congress, however, is likely to be a formidable enemy, as it has the established power to create, abolish, and change national monuments or even revise the Antiquities Act.[28]

The future of the new monuments is uncertain as the new administration takes power, and the coalition that supports it will need to strengthen the clout of its advocacy to continue the protection of the lands in question. The members of the coalitions on either side of the debate are becoming clear, but the fate of the Gold Butte and Bears Ears Butte monuments remains shaky.


[1] See Jason Mark, President Obama Establishes Two New National Monuments in Nevada and Utah, Sierra Mag. (Dec. 28, 2016), http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/green-life/president-obama-establishes-two-new-national-monuments-nevada-and-utah; see also Nathan Rott, Obama Designates Two New National Monuments in Nevada and Utah, NPR: The Two Way (Dec. 28, 2016, 8:02 PM), http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/12/28/507314596/obama-designates-two-new-national-monuments-in-nevada-and-utah.

[2] See Coral Davenport, Obama Designates Two New National Monuments, Protecting 1.65 Million Acres, The New York Times (Dec. 28, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/28/us/politics/obama-national-monument-bears-ears-utah-gold-butte.html.

[3] See Juliet Eilperin & Brady Dennis, With New Monuments in Nevada, Utah, Obama Adds to His Environmental Legacy, The Washington Post (Dec. 28, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/with-new-monuments-in-nevada-utah-obama-adds-to-his-environmental-legacy/2016/12/28/e9833f62-c471-11e6-8422-eac61c0ef74d_story.html?utm_term=.3c273ed7cbcb; see also Rott, supra note 1.

[4] See Chris Solomon, Overturning Bears Ears Is a Long Shot, But That Doesn’t Mean Republicans Won’t Try, Outside Mag. (Dec. 29, 2016), https://www.outsideonline.com/2146236/overturning-bears-ears-long-shot-doesnt-mean-republicans-wont-try.

[5] See Solomon, supra note 4.

[6] See Davenport, supra note 2.

[7] See Solomon, supra note 4.

[8] See Rott, supra note 1.

[9] Mark, supra note 1.

[10] See Brady McCombs, In a Victory for Native American Tribes, Obama Names New Monuments in Utah and Nevada, PBS (December 28, 2016, 5:50 PM),


[11] See Mark, supra note 1.

[12] Davenport, supra note 2.

[13] See Mark, supra note 1.

[14] See id.

[15] See Alexander C. Kaufman, Patagonia Is Gearing Up For War With Utah Republicans Over National Monument, The Huffington Post (Jan. 13, 2017, 1:01 PM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/patagonia-utah-national-monument_us_587907a7e4b0b3c7a7b0f7fc.

[16] See id.

[17] See Eilperin & Dennis, supra note 3.

[18] See id.

[19] See Andrew O’Reilly, Ranchers Spar with Obama Over New National Monuments in Utah and Nevada, Fox News Politics (Jan. 5, 2017), http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/01/05/ranchers-spar-with-obama-over-new-national-monuments-in-utah-and-nevada.html.

[20] See Davenport, supra note 2; see also Rott, supra note 1.

[21] Mark, supra note 1.

[22] See Solomon, supra note 4.

[23] See Rott, supra note 1.

[24] See id.

[25] See Solomon, supra note 4.

[26] See Davenport, supra note 2.

[27] See Solomon, supra note 4.

[28] See id.