Floor Speech on Bears Ears National Monument

January 5, 2017

Madam President: On January 20, change is coming to the White House. But until that day, it appears that President Obama will desperately cling to the status quo and continue to do what he has unfortunately done on so many occasions: abuse his executive powers to put in place unpopular policies without the cooperation of Congress and then pretend as if everyone supports him.

The most recent case in point involves President Obama’s decision to designate as a new national monument 1.35 million acres of public land in San Juan County – the poorest county in Utah, tucked in the southeast corner of the state. This vast tract of land – nearly the size of Delaware – includes and is named after the region’s distinctive Bears Ears buttes, which mark the ancestral homeland and sacred site of many members of the Navajo Nation who live in San Juan County.

President Obama announced the Bears Ears National Monument on December 28 – right between Christmas and New Year’s Eve – as most Americans were busy enjoying the holiday season, and as he was still enjoying his vacation in Hawaii. That same day, his administration released an explanatory document that was officially christened a “Fact Sheet” by the White House officials who wrote it. But in reality, it reads more like a work of fiction. 

Of all the falsehoods peddled in this bogus Fact Sheet, the most egregious – and the most insulting – is the claim that the residents of San Juan County, including the local members of the Navajo Nation, supported the president’s decision to turn Bears Ears into a national monument.

The document says: “The creation of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah [...] follow[s] years of robust public input from tribes, local elected officials, and diverse stakeholders, and draws from legislation introduced in Congress. In addition to protecting more land and water than any Administration in history” – and here’s the kicker – “President Obama has taken unprecedented steps to elevate the voices of Native peoples in the management of our natural resources.”

“Unprecedented steps to elevate the voices of Native peoples...”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Madam President, perhaps if we replaced the word “elevate” with the word “exploit” that sentence might apply to the situation in Bears Ears.

There’s no denying that many Native American tribes supported President Obama’s designation of the Bears Ears National Monument. But the inconvenient truth too often ignored by the Obama administration and its supporters is that virtually all of this tribal support came from Native Americans who live outside of Utah.

In fact, the most prominent Native American group that advocated for a national monument in Utah is actually an alliance, called the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, that is made up of several tribes, and most of its members reside outside of Utah.

And yet national-monument advocates routinely invoke the Inter-Tribal Coalition as the authoritative mouthpiece of all Native Americans in the southwestern United States.

So, how did a coalition of Native American tribes from Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico rise to such a position of prominence in a debate over a national monument in a remote corner of Utah?

Part of the answer lies in the cozy relationships between well-funded environmental advocacy groups, powerful outdoor retail companies, and tribal organizations.

Recent investigative reporting by the Deseret News shows how radical, wealthy, environmental organizations – supported by the outdoor recreational industry – channeled millions of dollars to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition only after they realized that “hitching [their] success” to the Navajo Nation was the only way they could achieve their long-standing goal of creating a national monument in southeastern Utah.

The ability of uber-rich environmentalists to essentially buy a national monument in Bears Ears explains why the people of San Juan County – including the Native American residents, whose lives and livelihoods are intricately tied to the region’s land – stand united in opposition to a monument designation.

For the people of the Navajo Nation who live in San Juan County, taking care of their ancestral land – protecting and preserving it for the next generation – isn’t optional. It’s a sacred duty.

The same is true in my own church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which teaches that the earth is a divine creation that belongs to God. This means that human beings have a spiritual responsibility to be wise stewards over the earth – to conserve it for our children and grandchildren.

The Navajo people of San Juan County have always faithfully fulfilled this responsibility in the Bears Ears region. Caring for their homelands – and respecting it as their forefathers did – is the cultural lifeblood of the Navajo people of southeastern Utah. Take away their access to their land – restrict their stewardship over the earth’s bounty, for the sake of increasing the access of wealthy urbanites who use the outdoors for recreation – and it won’t be long before their culture begins to fade away.

The people of San Juan County understand this. They’ve seen their worst nightmares become reality in other Utah counties as a result of a presidential national-monument designation. That’s why on December 29, the day after President Obama announced the Bears Ears monument, a crowd of several hundred Utahns assembled to hold a protest on the steps of the San Juan County courthouse.

Braving the frigid weather, they gathered together to demonstrate that they – the individuals and families who will be directly affected by a Bears Ears national monument – believe the president has no business seizing vast stretches of public lands to be micromanaged, and mismanaged, by federal agencies.

But the protestors weren’t just angry. They were resolute, confident about the future, and determined to keep fighting for their right to participate in the management of the land in their community.

Of course, environmentalists and national-monument advocates want the people of San Juan County to believe that the fight is over and that they lost. In their view, President Obama’s proclamation of the Bears Ears National Monument is permanent, irreversible, carved in stone. As one White House official recently told The Washington Post, “We do not see that the Trump administration has authority to undo this.”

But Madam President, that’s because they’re not looking hard enough.

The truth is, what can be done through unilateral executive action can also be undone the same way. Such is the impermanence of executive power in our constitutional republic, where major policy changes require broad consensus, forged through legislative compromise, to endure the test of time.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, two prominent constitutional scholars, Todd Gaziano and John Yoo, explain this point as it relates specifically to the tool President Obama used to designate the Bears Ears National Monument: the Antiquities Act of 1906.

Gaziano and Yoo write, “After studying the president’s legal authority [under the Antiquities Act], we conclude that he can rescind monument designations [...] the law’s text and original purposes strongly support a president’s ability to unilaterally correct his predecessor’s abuses.”

In other words, starting on January 20, President-Elect Trump can use his executive powers to rescind President Obama’s designation of the Bears Ears National Monument – and I’ve asked the future Trump administration to do just that. I’ve also recently cosponsored Senator Murkowski’s bill, the Improved National Monument Designation Process Act, which would require all future presidents to obtain congressional and state approval prior to designating a national monument.

I’ve done these things, Madam President, and I’ll do more, because I believe the preponderance of evidence proves that President Obama abused the powers granted to him under the Antiquities Act when he designated the Bears Ears National Monument.

This isn’t just my opinion. It’s the opinion of most of my fellow Utahns, including the crowd of American patriots who assembled on the county courthouse steps in the rural town of Monticello on December 29.

These are the people who were ignored by the Obama administration and cut out of the decision-making process that produced this national-monument designation. These are the voices that were stifled by the wealthy, out-of-state environmental groups that spent millions of dollars to lock-up our land for their exclusive use.

So, it’s fitting to let one of them – a resident of San Juan County – have the last word here today.

I think Suzy Johnson put it best when she said: “Mr. Obama, you have failed the grassroots natives. A true leader listens and finds common ground. The fight for our land is not over. Your name will blow away in the wind.”

I yield the floor.