President Donald Trump’s announcement last week that he intends to reduce the size of two national monuments covering millions of acres of Utah wilderness has stoked local divisions over land use, with all sides anticipating a protracted battle over the move.
On one side, Native American groups and environmentalists expressed anger and are ready to sue the U.S. government. On the other, conservative-leaning residents welcomed the decision, seeing it as a reversal of government overreach and a boost for traditional industries like drilling, mining and grazing.
But the tensions reflect a broader national debate over how to manage America’s vast open spaces. Since taking office, Trump has promised to increase development on federal lands.
"The polarization is so complete that no one is migrating to the center," said Steve Simpson, who owns a cafe and trading post in Bluff, where pro-monument signs are posted along the main street.
In late October, Trump informed Utah lawmakers of his intention to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments after a review he had launched of 27 monuments created by past presidents that placed vast tracts off-limits to business.
It was an opening salvo in a fight over the powers of the Antiquities Act, a century-old law that allows presidents to create national monuments without Congress, but which Trump has said was abused by past administrations.
Weeks before leaving office, former President Barack Obama created the 1.35 million acre Bears Ears monument, a territory bigger than Delaware named for its iconic twin buttes, at the behest of Native American tribes, but over the objections of Republican politicians and business groups.
The 1.88 million acre Grand Escalante was created by former President Bill Clinton in 1996.
Trump is expected to formally announce the decisions to reduce the size of the monuments during a trip to Utah in December. Details of the proposed new boundaries have not yet been released.
In San Juan County, where Bears Ears looms as a central feature, Trump’s decision to shrink the monument drew a mixed response.
"It’s a fool’s errand," said Simpson, the café owner in Bluff. "They are taking actions that will result in years of litigation and will ultimately fail."
Simpson said he believed the monument could be a good thing for the county by drawing tourists and outdoorsmen. Since the monument has become a political issue, visits to the area have surged, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Dashelle Holliday, a nurse who lives in Blanding, some 25 miles north of Bluff, disagreed. She welcomed Trump’s decision, saying the monument was too big.
"I’m excited to see a monument that does contain the small pieces that we need to protect, and allows us to keep using (the land) like we’ve been using it," she said.
She, like other opponents of the monument, worries the monument will hinder local business, including her family's gravel company which leases pits on Bears Ears, and replace them with a service economy for tourism.
"People here have worked to keep this a small town with small town values," she said.
Still, she agreed, Trump’s decision will not close the issue. "I think it’s the battle, not the war," she said.
A number of groups have promised to sue the Trump administration as soon as it takes official action, including the Navajo Nation – one of the five tribes that had urged the creation of the monument in order to preserve Native American sacred and historic sites.
"We have a complaint drafted," said Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch, who said the area was packed with tribal pottery, Puebloan architecture and old Navajo dwellings. She said the Navajo wrote two letters to the Trump administration since September seeking meetings but heard nothing back.
Elvira Begay, a Navajo from Cahone Mesa, said she was upset at Trump's decision. Bears Ears "is sacred to the Navajo," she said. "There's history there we believe in."
For a related photo essay, see: http://reut.rs/2z8ZM3d
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Diane Craft)