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Lawsuit over Bears Ears, Grand Staircase dismissed, state to appeal

Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah, with green shrubs in the foreground and the Bears Ears buttes in the background.
Mark Stevens
Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah

The Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments will remain intact, according to a federal court ruling made public Friday. But the issue is far from over.

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Utah leaders that tried to overturn President Joe Biden’s designations to the monuments in 2021, which expanded the monuments to a combined 3.2 million acres in southern Utah after each were rolled back by former President Donald Trump.

Steve Bloch, the legal director for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, an environmental group that intervened as a party in the state’s lawsuit, said the ruling was a win for the state as a whole.

“We're thrilled by the results, SUWA along with many other conservation groups,” Bloch said.

A large point of contention in Utah’s lawsuit over the designations stems from the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allowed the federal government to protect cultural and natural resources of historic or scientific interest on federal lands. The state’s lawsuit argued Biden overstepped his authority regarding the Antiquities Act, but the Friday ruling found he did not.

Bloch said there have been many lawsuits since 1920 challenging a president’s authority regarding the Antiquities Act, but all of them have failed.

In statements after the decision, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said they both want to appeal the ruling. Cox said in a statement the monuments will ultimately, “be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court and today’s ruling helps us get there even sooner.”

On Monday, Utah filed its intent to appeal the ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, the logical next step in the case. If the court doesn’t deliver a ruling Cox and other leaders want, then it could be further appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But even if that happens, Bloch said he believes this challenge would go the direction of all the other lawsuits in the past.

“We're confident that the Antiquities Act is going to be upheld, it's withstood the test of time, and that this lawsuit is going to be turned away at the door," he said.

Reporter Jacob Scholl covers northern Utah as part of a newly-created partnership between The Salt Lake Tribune and Utah Public Radio. Scholl writes for The Tribune and appears on-air for UPR.