Biden: Be Monumental for Public Lands & Ocean Conservation
Originally published on the NRDC Expert Blog.
On his first day in office, President Biden signaled his commitment to our public lands and waters when he issued an executive order directing the Interior Department to review President Trump’s illegal rollbacks of three national monuments: Bears Ears, Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Now, on the 115th anniversary of the Antiquities Act, and with the news that Secretary Deb Haaland has officially sent her agency’s report on national monuments to the White House, President Biden is poised to right one of the great wrongs of the previous administration by fully restoring protections to these vital natural areas.
We are optimistic that this administration will do the right thing. President Biden and Secretary Haaland have made great strides in restoring an emphasis on conservation that the previous administration abandoned. In January, Biden signed an executive order that included commitments to pause new oil and gas leasing, invest in renewable energy and restoration, a promise to conserve 30% of our land, water and ocean areas — the steps science tells us we must take to address the biodiversity and climate crises.
And Biden and his team have been strong on monument restoration from day 1; Biden promised on the campaign trail to restore the three monuments, and the administration committed early on to reviewing Trump’s rollbacks. One of Secretary Haaland’s first actions was to travel to Utah to meet with Tribal leaders, lawmakers, and other stakeholders to help inform Interior’s review of monument protections. The Biden Administration clearly understands the importance of our monuments. Restoring the boundaries and protections to Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is essential not only to protect these special places, but also to preserve the integrity of the Antiquities Act.
One of our most successful and popular conservation laws, the Antiquities Act delegates authority to the President to designate “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” as national monuments. Since its enactment in 1906, sixteen presidents from both political parties have used the Act to establish or expand more than 150 national monuments. Many of the country’s most iconic landscapes and structures were protected under the Antiquities Act, including the Grand Canyon, Statue of Liberty, and Muir Woods.
The previous administration launched an unprecedented and illegal assault on this foundational law — it dismantled Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments in Utah, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of New England. As the Antiquities Act turns 115 years old, we must undo the Trump administration’s misguided actions. It is critical that the Biden Administration restore all three of these monuments to protect these iconic wild places — and to preserve the integrity of the Antiquities Act.
For the tribes and pueblos of the region, Bears Ears is hallowed ground, and has been for many centuries. The monument was designated at the request of five Native American tribes — the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni — in order to preserve the area’s cultural, prehistoric, and historic values and maintain its diverse array of natural and scientific resources, ensuring that they remain intact for the benefit of all. The Bears Ears region has some of the most concentrated, well preserved, and significant historical, cultural, and paleontological resources found anywhere on the planet. Last month, the five Tribes of the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition published an open letter to the President calling for the swift restoration and expansion of Bears Ears National Monument:
“Bears Ears — the region we call Honmuru, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe — is our homeland. It always has been and still is. The culture is everywhere.”
The Biden Administration has promised to restore protections — and that time is now. We can’t afford to leave these sacred lands vulnerable to looting, or damage from industrial and extractive activity, or other destructive actions.
Northeast Canyons and Seamounts
The Antiquities Act also empowers the president to protect special ocean areas within national monuments. Presidents of both parties have used this authority to protect marine areas off the nation’s coast since the 1930s — including Glacier Bay National Monument, which Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded to three miles off Alaska’s coastline in 1939; Channel Islands National Monument, which Harry Truman expanded to a mile off California’s coastline in 1949; Buck Island Reef National Monument, established by President Kennedy in 1962; and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which George W. Bush established in 2008. Northeast Canyons “continue[s] in that tradition.”
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is located about 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod, in an area of the ocean where the continental shelf drops off to the deep sea and there are massive canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon, and “seamounts” as tall as any mountain east of the Rockies. President Obama designated the monument in 2016 to protect an astonishing diversity and abundance of marine life, like thousand-year-old deep-sea coral colonies, seabirds like the iconic Atlantic puffin, and marine mammals, like endangered sperm whales that rely on this special place.
Preserving biodiverse areas like these is not just for the protection of these incredible creatures. It’s a defense against the climate crisis, a sanctuary for scientific inquiry, and a gift to future generations.
Featuring spectacular cliffs and canyon systems that showcase millennia of sedimentary rock formations, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is home to fossils that offer an unparalleled window into the Late Cretaceous period. More than 20 dinosaur species have been discovered there. Scientists have called Grand Staircase-Escalante, whose multihued cliffs and exposed sandstone formations showcase an unparalleled array of fossils from the Late Cretaceous periods, an “important living laboratory.”
The Trump administration gutted these three natural and cultural treasures. We must restore full protections and boundaries to these incredible places and not let Trump’s illegal actions stand any longer. It’s time the Biden Administration follow through on its promise to restore our monuments and protect these special areas from polluters, looters, and extractive industries.