NRDC et al. v. Trump (Bears Ears)
Bears Ears National Monument protects a spectacular living landscape in southeastern Utah, the ancestral homeland to the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni. Amid its sandstone canyons, cliffs, and rock arches, its meadows, and its desert mesas, Bears Ears safeguards countless cultural sites, including dwellings, kivas, granaries, and rock art, which hold deep cultural and religious importance for the tribes today. President Obama established the monument in 2016 based on the tribes’ proposal, which NRDC and its partners supported, and formally recognized the tribes’ role in stewarding the land by creating the Bears Ears Commission.
Bears Ears became a focus of the Trump administration’s anti-environmental fervor, and in December 2017, then-president Trump signed proclamations purporting to dismantle Bears Ears and another national monument, Grand Staircase–Escalante, also in southern Utah. President Trump’s proclamation slashed Bears Ears by roughly 85 percent, replacing it with two much smaller, noncontiguous monument “units” and leaving the rest of the area vulnerable to harmful developments such as uranium mining, oil and gas drilling, road construction, and the use of mechanized vehicles.
Within hours of the proclamation, the five Native American tribes filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C., challenging the president’s action as unlawful. Two days later, NRDC—along with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and a coalition of other environmental groups represented by Earthjustice—followed with our own lawsuit. (We filed a similar lawsuit over Grand Staircase–Escalante earlier the same week.) A third group of plaintiffs—including grassroots organization Utah Diné Bikéyah, outdoor retailer Patagonia, and others—also sued, and the district court consolidated the lawsuits. As all three lawsuits explain, President Trump had neither constitutional nor statutory authority to dismantle national monuments.
In January 2020, we moved for summary judgment. While we were awaiting the district court’s decision, Trump’s presidency ended, and President Biden—on his first day in office—issued an executive order initiating a review of Trump’s monument rollbacks. During the review period, the Biden administration requested—and the district court granted—a stay of the court proceedings. In the interim, the federal government is required to provide plaintiffs with timely notice before undertaking a range of potentially harmful developments within the excluded lands.
Finally, on October 8, 2021, President Biden issued a new proclamation restoring Bears Ears to the boundaries established by President Obama in 2016, retaining protections for another 11,200 acres added to the monument in 2017, and restoring the Bears Ears Commission. The Biden administration repudiated Trump’s actions as “unprecedented,” observing that NRDC and our partners’ lawsuits “raised serious and fundamental questions as to whether a president has authority to reduce boundaries or core protections in a way that is tantamount to revocation of a monument.” President Biden restored Bears Ears, the White House explained, to uphold “the long-standing principle that America’s national parks, monuments, and other protected areas are to be protected for all time and for all people.”
The fight to protect Bears Ears isn’t over yet. Bears Ears still faces real lingering threats from the Trump administration’s rollback, including from mining claims staked there on Trump’s watch and a management plan that incorporates Trump’s now-repudiated diminished boundaries. We will continue to advocate, alongside our partners, to ensure that Bears Ears remains permanently protected, as it deserves.