With new monuments in Nevada, Utah, Obama adds to his environmental legacy


Aerial view of Gravel Canyon and Jacobs Chair in the west part of Bears Ears National Monument. (Robert Fillmore/Robert Fillmore)


President Obama on Tuesday created new national monuments in a sacred tribal site in southeastern Utah and in a swath of Nevada desert, after years of political fights over the fate of the areas.

The designations further cement Obama’s environmental legacy as one of the most consequential — and contentious — in presidential history. He now has invoked his executive power to create national monuments 29 times during his tenure, establishing or expanding protections for more than 553 million acres of federal lands and waters.

Environmental groups have praised the conservation efforts, but critics say they amount to a federal land grab. Some worry that the new designations could fuel another armed protest by anti-government forces inspired by the Cliven Bundy family, such as the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon this year.

Obama’s newest designations include two sprawling Western landscapes that are under threat, yet also where local residents are deeply divided on how the land should be used.

Jose Witt, Southern Nevada director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, points out petroglyphs while leading a hike this fall in Gold Butte. The area is now one of the newest national monuments. (Ronda Churchill/for The Washington Post)

In Utah, where the federal government owns roughly two thirds of the land, the designation of another 1.35-million acres to create the Bears Ears National Monument undoubtedly will prove polarizing.

For the first time, Native American tribes will co-manage a national monument with the federal government. Five tribes that often have been at odds in the past — the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Pueblo of Zuni — will together have responsibility for protecting an area that contains well-preserved remnants of ancestral Pueblo sites dating back more than 3,500 years.

“We have always looked to Bear’s Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants, and a place of prayer and sacredness,” Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, said in a call with reporters Tuesday. “These places — the rocks, the wind, the land – they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.”

While many environmentalists and archeologists supported their monument, most Utah politicians opposed the site’s unilateral protection. Instead, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and a fellow Utah Republican, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, devoted three years to drafting a land-use bill that would have protected a large portion of the site but would have allowed some development. The bill stalled in the House.

In a statement Tuesday, Chaffetz said he was “outraged” by the designation, saying Obama’s decision “politicizes a long-simmering conflict.”

“The midnight monument is a slap in the face to the people of Utah, attempting to silence the voices of those who will bear the heavy burden it imposes,” he said, vowing to work with the Trump administration to try to repeal the decision. “It does not have the support of the Governor, a single member of the state’s Congressional delegation, nor any local elected officials or state legislators who represent the area.

Meanwhile, the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada has been a site of contention for more than 15 years. As Las Vegas sought to expand, local, state and federal managers agreed to protect species such as the imperiled desert tortoise in Gold Butte. But they did little for either the animals or the actual sagebrush steppe and Mojave desert in the roughly 300,000-acre area marked by fossilized sand dunes and panels of petroglyphs that tower over the landscape.

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