Restoring Utah National Monument Boundaries Highlights a New Tactic in the Biden Administration’s Climate Strategy

Keeping fossil fuels in the ground while harnessing soil, forests and waterways to capture carbon helps justify protections of public lands.

Sandstone formations are shown here in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on May 10, 2017 outside Boulder, Utah. Credit: George Frey/Getty Images

Sandstone formations are shown here in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on May 10, 2017 outside Boulder, Utah. Credit: George Frey/Getty Images

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The years-long debate about conserving the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments has centered on the tension between preserving the history and culture of the Indigenous peoples who inhabited the region for centuries, and efforts to exploit natural resources.

But on Friday, President Joe Biden gave the monuments a new meaning when he restored their original boundaries in southern Utah and highlighted public lands as a tool in the climate fight.

White House Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy connected global warming to the president’s conservation pledge as she opened the White House ceremony where Biden signed proclamations restoring the boundaries, which former President Donald Trump had reduced to clear the way for fossil fuel exploration.

Seated at an ornate wooden desk on the North Lawn, Biden also signed a proclamation restoring the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument in the Atlantic Ocean southeast of Cape Cod that had been designated in 2016 but was subsequently reopened to commercial fishing by Trump in 2020.

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McCarthy, who led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration, said such protections harness the power of soil, trees and water to build resilience against the climate impacts the world is already facing.

“Tapping into these natural climate solutions will protect public health,” she said. “They will protect us against climate impacts.”

The signing came as Biden prepares to attend the annual United Nations’ climate change conference next month in Scotland virtually empty-handed, since major parts of his climate agenda remain in limbo, snagged in a $3.5 trillion fight over a spending plan that would expand the social safety net and implement a first-ever U.S. policy for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in time to head off the worst damages from global warming.

At Friday’s ceremony, the president cited scientists who estimate that protecting and restoring natural lands and water can “provide nearly 40 percent of the solution to climate change.” And he highlighted his goal of cutting U.S. emissions in half by 2030 and bringing the nation to net zero emissions by 2050.

“Achieving these ambitious goals, it’s going to require that nature itself be a player,” he said, before signing the proclamations that restore more than 2 million acres to the Utah monuments.

Utah’s Republican political leaders denounced the move. During the Trump’s presidency, they had lobbied the administration to scale back the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created by President Bill Clinton in 1996, and Bears Ears, which President Barack Obama created in 2016 at the behest of the five tribes with the deepest ties to the region’s rich cultural and natural history.

Now they are condemning Biden’s decision to reverse the Trump-era boundaries that had reopened access to abundant coal, uranium, oil and gas deposits that lie beneath the breathtaking redrock landscape.

Redge Johnson, executive director of Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, pointed out that by refusing to work with Congress on the monuments, the Biden administration may have also restricted some important climate tools.

Uranium deposited in and around Bears Ears could help power U.S. nuclear reactors. Lithium reserves there could be used for the batteries required for the transition to renewable energy sources. Forest treatments that are now prohibited by monument rules might have prevented wildfires and their emissions.

“We missed an opportunity there,” Johnson said.

Over the nearly four years that the Trump administration rewrote the resource management plans that dictate how the lands can be developed, the rush to dig coal or tap into oil and gas reserves never materialized.

In March, the Utah Geological Survey detailed the so-so opportunities for fossil fuel development within the original boundaries of both monuments. There were no new permit applications to drill for oil and gas in Bears Ears, the report said, and 300 oil and gas wells that had been drilled or proposed before the controversy over the monument’s boundaries remained idle. Not one has been active since 1992.

The original Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where the Kaiparowits Plateau holds 58.5 percent of Utah’s coal reserves, contains “high” potential reserves, the state geologists said.

Steve Bloch, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which fought the downsizing  in federal court, said the energy claims were so remote they were unlikely ever to be profitable. But conservation groups worried, because the doors remained open to fossil fuel development on roughly 2 million acres that had once had monument protection.

“Under Trump, and under the ‘energy dominance’ agenda, we had every reason to believe that there would be a new coal mine in the Grand Staircase, that they would be going after tar sands or after oil shale or that there would be speculative uranium mining or leasing for oil and gas,” he said.

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The new proclamations put an end to those risks because monument status prohibits new development on public lands.

For the long-term protection of the climate, that restriction could prove significant, according to Laura Hilberg, of EcoAdapt, which developed a report for SUWA a year ago detailing the climate mitigation and adaptation potential of expanded wilderness protection in Utah.

“There’s a lot of greenhouse gases that would not be released into the atmosphere, if all of the oil, gas and coal in those areas were kept in the ground,” said Hilberg, a climate adaptation scientist.

In the end, the boundary restorations seem to underscore a message that tribal advocates brought to the bargaining table when they first presented their idea for Bears Ears to the Obama administration. For the Indigenous people of the region, every landscape is part of the natural world that all life and all people depend on.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo whose ancestors inhabited the region, seemed to have that idea in mind at Friday’s signing ceremony. Her voice faltering with emotion, she said: “This is a place that must be protected in perpetuity for every American and every child of the world.”