(EnviroNews Headline News Desk) — Salt Lake City, Utah — Only hours after Donald Trump announced his administration would be significantly shrinking the boundaries for much of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Southern Utah, environmental groups filed a lawsuit, naming President Donald J. Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Brian Steed as the culprits, for what they say was an “unlawful” act.
On December 4, 2017, the President made the announcement official by signing two proclamations at a speech at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, rescinding protections for nearly two million acres of federal land, in what USA Today called “the largest rollback of national monument designations in history.”
The move effectively eliminates Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and replaces it with three non-contiguous units called, “Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits, and Escalante Canyons.” One of the proclamations also rolled back protections on Bears Ears National Monument — a pristine area harboring many tribal artifacts and other indigenous ruins, designated by Barack Obama at the end of his presidency.
“This case challenges President Donald J. Trump’s unlawful December 4, 2017 proclamation that attempts to revoke monument status and protections from roughly half of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument,” the lawsuit reads in its introductory statement.
The suit also claims Trump abused his presidential authority “under the U.S. Constitution and the Antiquities Act.” “[Trump] violated the 1906 Antiquities Act by stripping monument protections from this national treasure,” the coalition added in a joint press release, further explaining, “The Antiquities Act does not [grant] presidents the authority to diminish or rescind the monument designations of their predecessors.”
The plaintiffs in the case comprise a broad coalition of conservation and environmental law organizations. Earthjustice is representing the alliance, which includes the Wilderness Society, Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife (Defenders), Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Center for Biological Diversity (the Center), WildEarth Guardians (Guardians) and Western Watersheds Project. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are also listed as co-plaintiffs and are represented by in-house council.
“This is an act of looting of some of America’s most fragile and precious public land treasures,” said Erik Molvar, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, to EnviroNews. “The Trump Administration is showing a depraved disregard for the national monument conservation tradition begun by Theodore Roosevelt, and for the overwhelming majority of Americans who want these lands protected for the enjoyment of present and future generations.”
In a statement to the White House Press Pool, the Administration acknowledged the myriad geological anomalies at Grand Staircase-Escalante, but quickly turned around and claimed President Clinton protected too much of the area under the Antiquities Act when he handed out the original designation on September 18, 1996, via Proclamation 6920.
The Administration stated:
Proclamation 6920 identifies the monument area as rich with paleontological sites and fossils, including marine and brackish water mollusks, turtles, crocodilians, lizards, dinosaurs, fishes, and mammals, as well as terrestrial vertebrate fauna, including mammals, of the Cenomanian-Santonian ages, and one of the most continuous records of Late Cretaceous terrestrial life in the world… Proclamation 6920 also identifies a number of unique geological formations and landscape features within the monument boundaries. These include the Grand Staircase, White Cliffs, Vermilion Cliffs, Kaiparowits Plateau, Upper Paria Canyon System, Upper Escalante Canyons, Burning Hills, Circle Cliffs, East Kaibab Monocline, Grosvenor Arch, and Escalante Natural Bridge, all of which are retained in whole or part within the revised monument boundaries.
As a justification for revamping and shrinking the boundaries of the monument, the White House wrote:
The Antiquities Act requires that any reservation of land as part of a monument be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects of historic or scientific interest to be protected. Determining the appropriate protective area involves examination of a number of factors, including the uniqueness and nature of the objects, the nature of the needed protection, and the protection provided by other laws… The modified monument boundaries take into account [new] information [and], retain the majority of the high-potential areas for locating new fossil resources that have been identified within the area reserved by Proclamation 6920.
But environmentalists aren’t buying it. “President Trump has perpetrated a terrible violation of America’s public lands and heritage by going after this dinosaur treasure trove,” said Heidi McIntosh, Managing Attorney in Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountains office. “While past presidents have used the Antiquities Act to protect unique lands and cultural sites in America, Trump is instead mangling the law, opening this national monument to coal mining instead of protecting its scientific, historic, and wild heritage. We will not let this stand. We will use the power of the law to stop Trump’s illegal actions.”
Trump on the other hand, said it was previous presidents who had abused the Antiquities Act. “These abuses of the Antiquities Act give enormous power to faraway bureaucrats at the expense of the people who actually live here, work here, and make this place their home,” Trump said in Salt Lake City. “With the action I’m taking today, we will not only give back your voice over the use of this land, we will also restore your access and your enjoyment. Public lands will once again be for public use, because we know that people who are free to use their land and enjoy their land are the people most determined to conserve their land.”
The plaintiffs say the President’s move isn’t really about the overreach of previous presidents at all, and that the real reason for the rollback is indeed good old fashion coal mining. “In mid-October, scientists airlifted one of the most complete tyrannosaur skeletons ever found out of Grand Staircase,” the coalition said. “These fossils are largely found in the Kaiparowits Plateau, where the coal industry has long coveted access for coal mining that would wreak havoc on this dinosaur treasure trove.”
One area, shared contiguously by Grand Staircase and Capitol Reef National Park was eliminated entirely, with the White House saying it wasn’t “unique” at all:
The Waterpocket Fold [is] located mostly within the Capitol Reef National Park and the portions within the monument are not unique or particularly scientifically significant. Therefore, the boundaries of the monument may be modified to exclude the Waterpocket Fold without imperiling the proper care and management of that formation.
That may be the White House’s position, but the plaintiffs in the case share a different sentiment entirely. “Since its designation, 21 new dinosaur species have been unearthed by scientists in the monument, leading some to call these lands a ‘Dinosaur Shangri-la,’ and a ‘geologic wonderland,'” the coalition pointed out in the joint press release.
It’s not only the geology and paleontology that are unique at Grand Staircase either. It’s human artifacts — from indigenous peoples and Mormon pioneers too. But apparently, those archeological marvels weren’t unique enough to be protected either, with the White House saying:
Proclamation 6920 also describes Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan rock art panels, occupation sites, campsites, and granaries, as well as historic objects such as those left behind by Mormon pioneers, including trails, inscriptions, ghost towns, rock houses, and cowboy line camps. These are artifacts that are known to generally occur across the Four Corners region, particularly in southern Utah, and the examples found within the monument are not, as described, of any unique or distinctive scientific or historic significance.
The White House went even further, claiming that much of Grand Staircase-Escalante isn’t unique or significant at all:
Many of the objects identified by Proclamation 6920 are not unique to the monument, and some of the particular examples of those objects within the monument are not of significant historic or scientific interest. Moreover, many of the objects identified by Proclamation 6920 are not under threat of damage or destruction such that they require a reservation of land to protect them.
But the environmental groups say just the opposite, insisting that much of the area will be in danger of destruction and exploitation with federal protections lifted.
“We are appalled at this disgraceful act of sabotage against these national monuments, and are gearing up to fight back in court,” Molvar concluded to EnviroNews.