Obama names Utah, Nevada monuments despite opposition

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — President Barack Obama designated two national monuments Wednesday at sites in Utah and Nevada that have become key flashpoints over use of public land in the U.S. West, marking the administration’s latest move to protect environmentally sensitive areas in its final days.

The Bears Ears National Monument in Utah will cover 1.35 million acres in the Four Corners region, the White House said. In a victory for Native American tribes and conservationists, the designation protects land that is considered sacred and is home to an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings.

It’s a blow for state Republican leaders and many rural residents who fear it will add another layer of unnecessary federal control and close the area to energy development and recreation, a common refrain in the battle over use of the American West’s vast open spaces.

In Nevada, a 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument outside Las Vegas would protect a scenic and ecologically fragile area near where rancher Cliven Bundy led in an armed standoff with government agents in 2014. It includes rock art, artifacts, rare fossils and recently discovered tracks.

The White House and conservationists said both sites were at risk of looting and vandalism.

“Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes,” Obama said in a statement.

His administration has rushed to safeguard vulnerable areas ahead of President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration. It has blocked new mining claims outside Yellowstone National Park and new oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

Obama’s creation and expansion of monuments covers more acreage than any other president.

But Trump’s upcoming presidency has tempered the excitement for tribal leaders and conservationists, with some worrying he could try to reverse or reduce some of Obama’s expansive land protections.

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, who opposes the Bears Ears Monument, has suggested presidents have the power to undo monuments, though it has not been done before.

A coalition of tribes pushed for the creation of Utah’s eighth national monument, though they asked Obama to make it about 500,000 acres larger than the monument he named Wednesday.

Tribal members visit the Bears Ears area to perform ceremonies, collect herbs and wood for medicinal and spiritual purposes, and do healing rituals.

Navajo Nation President ?Russell Begaye called it an exciting day for his tribe and people of all cultures.

“We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants, and a place of prayer and sacredness,” Begaye said. “The rocks, the winds, the land – they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.”

The Navajo Nation is one of five tribes that will get an elected official on a first-of-its-kind tribal commission for the Bears Ears monument. The panel will provide federal land managers with tribal expertise and historical knowledge about the area, federal officials said.

Tucked between existing national parks and the Navajo reservation, the proposed monument features stunning vistas at every turn, with a mix of cliffs, plateaus, towering rock formations, rivers and canyons across wide expanses covered by sagebrush and juniper trees.

Opponents agree the area is a natural treasure worth preserving but said the federal designation would create restrictions on oil and gas development as well residents’ ability to camp, bike, hike and gather wood.

No new mining and oil and gas development will be allowed within the monument boundaries, said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Members of Utah’s all-GOP congressional delegation had backed a plan to protect about 1.4 million acres at Bears Ears, while opening up other areas of the state for development.

To many residents in the small, predominantly Mormon town of Blanding that sits near the new monument, the proposal is a thinly veiled, repackaged push from environmental groups who recruited tribes after previous attempts at the designation fizzled out.

In Nevada, retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid has pushed for protections at Gold Butte, a remote area northeast of Lake Mead, but GOP members of the state’s congressional delegation have been vocal opponents.

Bundy is one rancher who does not recognize federal jurisdiction in the area. He was accused of illegally allowing his cows to roam there after failing to pay more than $1.1 million in fees and penalties.

He has pleaded not guilty to charges in the 2014 standoff with U.S. agents trying to round up his cattle.