The legal battle to protect the Bears Ears National Monument has begun.
Tribal and environmental groups launched separate lawsuits Monday night, just hours after President Donald Trump’s proclamation to downsize the 1.35 million acre monument by 82 percent.
This comes as no surprise; parties have been clear they’d respond in court if Trump acted to revoke the national monument’s status. Now, more areas of land will be at risk of looting and theft, which Bears Ears has seen before and continues to experience now.
That’s part of the tribes’ argument in keeping the national monument designation across all of Bears Ears—not the teeny bits the administration has left in its wake. The suit filed by the Native American Rights Fund, on behalf of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the Zuni Tribe, states:
Bears Ears contains hundreds of thousands of objects of historic and scientific importance, many traditional cultural properties, and many sacred sites. Plaintiff Tribes in particular continue regularly to use Bears Ears to: collect plants, minerals, objects and water for religious and cultural ceremonies and medicinal purposes; hunt, fish and gather; provide offerings at archaeological sites; and conduct ceremonies on the land. In fact, Bears Ears is so culturally and spiritually significant that some ceremonies use items that can only be harvested from Bears Ears.
They’re also arguing that the Antiquities Act of 1906 does not bestow this kind of unilateral power to the president. This is the law presidents use to create national designations like Bears Ears (or the Grand Staircase-Escalante, which Trump is also cutting), but presidents have rarely used it to reduce a monument’s size. Legal experts have told Earther that situations when this has happened were much, much different.
Congress is really the branch of government with the power to do this, and that’s a big part of the argument tribes are making. They want the court to declare that Trump’s proclamation is illegal and unconstitutional. They also want an injunction to stop the proclamation, which allows mining leasing to begin in 60 days.
And the tribes aren’t alone: Earthjustice filed a lawsuit Monday, too, representing eight environmental organizations including The Wilderness Society and The Grand Canyon Trust. While the tribes speak almost exclusively about Bears Ears, these groups include the Grand Staircase-Escalante, too.
Scientists have uncovered 21 new dinosaur species on these lands, which are now being cut by about half. This lawsuit is pretty clear it wants the same thing as the tribes. So does this one by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. The nation’s paleontologists can see what’s at risk here: science and fossil discovery.
Industries, on the other hand, want to explore for fossil fuel discoveries. They’ve been trying to ask the Bureau of Land Management to let them lease more than 100,000 acres along Bears Ears for oil and gas development since 2013. Now that these lands are no longer protected under the Antiquities Act—and now that the president is developing an “America-first” energy policy that allows drilling almost anywhere and everywhere (including in the Arctic’s pristine wildlife refuge)—fossil fuel companies have a much better shot.
Trump’s alterations to these lands could create some major precedents if he wins—but they’ll likely take years to go through the courts, leaving these monuments in a legal limbo. But the time and money are worth it for the locals and indigenous people who call these lands home.
The Navajo Nation’s Department of Justice hopes the process is much shorter than that. “We are hoping this will move a little faster based on what’s at stake,” Katerine Belzowski, a senior attorney with the department, told Earther. Until then, from her understanding, Trump’s proclamation stands. The Nation is still unclear about what Trump’s proclamation means for the monument’s tribal commission created under former President Barack Obama.
Not all agree about the designation, of course. The Aneth Chapter and Blue Mountain Diné of the Navajo Nation have previously opposed Bears Ears’ national monument designation. They were concerned how this would limit their cultural use of the land. In short, they didn’t trust the federal government’s ability to honor their uses of the land (which is understandable, given how many promises the U.S. government has broken).
But even those who have opposed the land’s designation have done so out of love for the lands. After all, there’s nothing like the Bears Ears’ starry night sky. And nothing like the herbs and resources it offers to tribal ceremonies.
What some are arguing is that, without enforced protection, these sacred sites and archaeological treasure chests might become nothing more than ruined mines and looted caves.
This post was updated to include comments from the Navajo Nation’s Department of Justice.