Biden reverses Trump cuts to monuments, restoring protection for key fossil sites

White House also reinstates plan to limit fishing in marine monument

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (above) and Bears Ears National Monument hold thousands of rare fossils.Jack Dykinga
issue cover image
Table of contents
A version of this story appeared in Science, Vol 374, Issue 6565.Download PDF

In a long-awaited decision, President Joe Biden today restored Utah’s fossil-rich Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments to their former boundaries, 4 years after former President Donald Trump made drastic cuts to both.

“This may be the easiest thing I’ve ever done so far as president,” Biden said before signing the proclamations. “Today I am proud to announce the protection and expansion of three of our most treasured national monuments.” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo Laguna in New Mexico, was visibly moved. “Thank you, Mr. President for protecting the homelands of our ancestors,” she said, her voice cracking.

The proclamations garnered praise from paleontologists, conservationists, and Southwestern tribes that trace their ancestry to the Bears Ears region. Together, they had persuaded former President Barack Obama in the waning days of his administration to protect 547,000 hectares of the area. In establishing the monument in December 2016, Obama cited the significance of Bears Ears to tribes including the Hopi, Navajo, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni and its rich paleontological and archaeological record. Obama also expanded the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created by then-President Bill Clinton in 1996.

Not long after Trump took office, however, his administration reduced the size of Bears Ears by 85%, leaving 82,000 hectares split into two separate units, and cut the 768,902-hectare Grand Staircase-Escalante by almost half. The Trump administration also added 4532 hectares to Bears Ears, which was retained in the new designation.

“President Biden did the right thing,” Shaun Chapoose of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee and a member of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition said in a statement. “For us, the monument never went away. We will always return to these lands to manage and care for our sacred sites, waters, and medicines.”

Paleontologists who work in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante also expressed relief. The monuments’ colorful buttes and badlands harbor rare fossils that chronicle hundreds of millions of years of Earth’s history, and some key sites were left outside the boundaries after Trump’s cuts, such as the Valley of the Gods and parts of Indian Creek. Those sites, now returned to the monuments, could provide “unique insights” into important paleontological periods, including the rise of dinosaurs at the end of the Triassic some 200 million years ago, researchers wrote last year in a review of research conducted within the monument. Bears Ears is thought to hold the world’s most abundant cache of Triassic fossils.

“It’s very good to see those sites back within the boundaries,” says Robert Gay, an independent paleontologist who has studied Triassic fossils in Bears Ears for years. But he had hoped the Biden administration would enlarge the monument to include an understudied area with known paleontological sites. “I’m a little disappointed that there wasn’t an expansion.”

Biden’s move not only restores stricter protections, Gay notes; it also means some research projects will again be eligible for federal funding dedicated to research on monument resources. For years, that funding has been in limbo and some field research had to be delayed. The federal support could help scientists secure funding from other sources, such as private foundations, Gay adds.

The proclamation also restores protections to Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, off the coast of New England. Obama created the monument in September 2016, but in 2020 Trump issued an order to lift restrictions on commercial fishing in what is the U.S. Atlantic Ocean’s only national monument. Under Biden’s proclamations, commercial fishing for lobster and red crab in the 1.3-million-hectare area will be phased out by 2023.

“Restoring the Canyons and Seamounts—an extraordinary underwater landscape full of ancient corals and sea creatures—preserves a living laboratory for scientists and will make our ocean more resilient in the face of climate change,” says Manish Bapna, president and CEO of the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council. A July study found that opening the monument to commercial fishing would harm marine species, which can get tangled in fishing gear or become bycatch.

Although supporters were quick to declare Biden’s new proclamations the final say on the controversial monuments, his decision, like those of his predecessors, is likely to be challenged in court.

The monuments were created under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which permits presidents to protect “objects of historic and scientific interest” without congressional approval. Many Utah lawmakers have opposed the creation or expansion of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments, arguing that invoking the Antiquities Act amounts to presidential overreach. Yesterday, one group of Utah officials issued a statement calling Biden’s decision “disappointing,” and added they are considering legal action. “[T]he purpose of the Antiquities Act is to protect the ‘smallest area compatible with the care and management’ of significant archeological or historical objects,” said the group, which includes Utah Governor Spencer Cox (R). “We agree and will consider all available legal options to that end.”

Steve Bloch, legal director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, is doubtful a new legal challenge will succeed. They already litigated and lost” previous cases challenging the monuments, he noted. “We’ll see how that goes the second time around.”

Support nonprofit science journalism

Help News from Science publish trustworthy, high-impact stories about research and the people who shape it. Please make a tax-deductible gift today.