President Barack Obama has named two new national monuments in Utah and Nevada, sites considered sacred lands by Native Americans and that each boast thousands of cultural artifacts that are at risk.
The designations Wednesday were not without controversy, however, as the western United States has become a flashpoint over use of public lands.
Administration and conservation officials who support the measure say both sites have cultural relics that are threatened by looting and vandalism.
But the national monument designation is a blow for Republican leaders in Utah and Nevada, and many rural residents who see it as adding another layer of federal control. They say it would not only close the areas to gas and oil development, but to some recreational uses as well.
Bears Ears, Gold Butte
The Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah will cover nearly 550,000 hectares (1.35 million acres), the White House said. The move is considered a victory by Native American tribes and conservationists.
The Bears Ears site is considered sacred land by local tribes, and is also home to more than 100,000 cultural sites that include ancient cliff dwellings, burial sites and rock carvings. Tribal members currently use the site to perform ceremonies and healing rituals, and to collect herbs and wood for medicinal and spiritual purposes.
The Gold Butte National Monument, located outside Las Vegas, will preserve more than 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres), according to the White House.
The area is an ecologically fragile region that includes rock art, artifacts and rare fossils, and also is currently used by tribes for traditional purposes, the White House said.
“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 announcing the new national monuments.
In making the decision to protect the two sites, “President Obama has taken unprecedented steps to elevate the voices of native peoples in the management of our natural resources,” a White House statement said. (read White House proclamation)
Use of Antiquities Act
Obama has the power to set aside the areas through the Antiquities Act, which was signed in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The law allows the president to establish that archeological sites on public lands are important public resources.
Republican criticism, however, was swift Wednesday.
Utah’s governor and state lawmakers condemned the designation, with Governor Gary Herbert saying in a statement that Obama “has misused his authority,” and promising an aggressive challenge of the order.
U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah called Obama’s action an “attack on an entire way of life” and an “astonishing and egregious abuse of executive power” that far exceeds the intent of the Antiquities Act.
“In the next Congress under President[-elect Donald] Trump, I will do everything in my power to reverse this travesty,” Hatch told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Meanwhile, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye praised the designation, calling it an exciting day for his tribe and people of all cultures.
“Today, President Barack Obama has signed a proclamation to protect this land as a national monument for future generations of Navajo people and for all Americans. Thanks to his action, this land will be finally given the legal reverence and protection it deserves,” Begaye said in a statement.
In Nevada, retiring Democratic Senator Harry Reid has been opposed by Republicans in his state as he pushed for protections at Gold Butte.
Governor Brian Sandoval said he would have preferred a more collaborative approach that included opinions of those affected, but said he worked with federal officials “to mitigate any disruption a potential designation may cause the surrounding private land owners, communities and recreationists.”
Federal use of land
The site is near where rancher Cliven Bundy and his followers were in an armed standoff over public land use with government agents in 2014. Bundy does not recognize federal jurisdiction in the area.
Earlier in 2016, Bundy’s sons, Ryan and Ammon Bundy, also led a group of armed, anti-government militants in staging a 41-day occupation of an eastern Oregon wildlife refuge in a protest against federal control of lands.
Obama, who leaves office in less than a month, has used the Antiquities Act and other measures to protect more land and water than any other administration in history, a White House statement said. Most recently, he banned offshore oil and gas drilling in an area off the Alaska and Atlantic coasts.