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Trump Administration Finalizes Plans To Allow Development On Downsized Monuments

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument boasts stunning features such as the Escalante Canyons, seen here in an undated photo. Together with Bears Ears, the Trump administration has greenlit big changes for the monument — though the legality of the move remains unclear.

Updated at 5:50 p.m. ET

More than two years after carrying out the largest reversal of national monument protections in U.S. history, the Trump administration has finalized plans for the roughly 2 million acres of formerly protected land in southern Utah.

The federal Bureau of Land Management released its plans Thursday to open up the lands, which were once protected as part of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments, to use by energy developers and ranchers.

"These cooperatively developed and locally driven plans restore a prosperous future to communities too often dismissed and punished by unilateral decisions of those that would not listen to the voices of Utahns," Casey Hammond, the Interior Department's acting assistant secretary of land, materials and minerals management, said in a statement.

Administration officials unveiled the plans Thursday despite continued doubts about the moves that downsized these monuments in the first place. In December 2017, Trump issued a pair of presidential proclamations that shrunk Bears Ears by about 85% of its original size and Grand Staircase by roughly half.

Both regions had been protected under Democratic presidents. And Bears Ears, in particular, had drawn the ire of conservatives, who felt that Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, radically overreached and trampled on residents' rights when designating the massive monument late in his second term.

Still, Trump's reversal of Obama's controversial move has attracted significant controversy of its own — as well as persistent questions about its very legality. Both Bears Ears and its older counterpart, as with all national monuments, were designated under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which Trump also cited in his proclamations.

But the law itself is unclear on who actually has the power to abolish or shrink national monument boundaries, and legal experts say it has traditionally been the responsibility of Congress to modify the size of public lands.

A slew of conservation and tribal groups all but immediately sued the administration in federal court, where their lawsuits challenging the move continue to unfold.

"These plans are atrocious, and entirely predictable. They are the latest in a series of insults to these magnificent lands by the Trump administration that began when Trump illegally dismantled Bears Ears and Grand Staircase at the behest of corporate interests two years ago," Sharon Buccino, senior director of lands at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement after the plans' release.

"We stand with the five Tribes and the millions of Americas who vigorously oppose this degradation and giveaway of our public lands."

Honor Keeler of the Cherokee Nation and assistant director with the group Utah Dinebikeyah said protections are going away for land that is full of sacred artifacts, burial sites and other cultural resources.

"We find that this is an ongoing failure to meaningfully consult with tribes, that this seems to be an indicator of the treatment of indigenous peoples in the United States," she told NPR.

"I think it's part of a broader narrative that directly affects indigenous people and indigenous lands."

Regardless of the pending lawsuits, the Trump administration intends to plow forward with its plans.

"If we stopped and waited for every piece of litigation to be resolved," Hammond said Thursday on a call with reporters, "we would never be able to do much of anything around here."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.