SALT LAKE CITY- President Barack Obama designated two national monuments Wednesday at sites in Utah and Nevada that have become key flashpoints over use of public land in the U.S. West, marking the administration’s latest move to protect environmentally sensitive areas in its final days.
The Bears Ears National Monument in Utah will cover 1.35 million acres in the Four Corners region, the White House said. In a victory for Native American tribes and conservationists, the designation protects land that is considered sacred and is home to an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings.
It’s a jolt for nation Republican leaders and many rural residents who dread it will add another layer of unnecessary federal control and close the area to energy development and recreation, a common refrain in the battle over utilize of the American West’s vast open spaces.
In Nevada, a 300,000 -acre Gold Butte National Monument outside Las Vegas would protect a scenic and ecologically fragile area near where rancher Cliven Bundy led in an armed standoff with government agents in 2014. It includes rock art, artifacts, rare fossils and recently discovered tracks.
The White House and conservationists told both sites were at risk of looting and vandalism.
“Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic sceneries, ” Obama said in a statement.
His administration has rushed to safeguard vulnerable areas ahead of President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration. It has blocked new mining asserts outside Yellowstone National Park and new petroleum drilling in the Arctic Ocean .
Obama’s creation and expansion of monuments encompasses more acreage than any other president.
But Trump’s upcoming presidency has tempered the excitement for tribal leaders and conservationists, with some fretting he could try to reverse or reduce some of Obama’s expansive land protections.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, who opposes the Bears Ears Monument, has suggested chairpeople have the power to undo monuments, though it has not been done before.
A coalition of tribes pushed for the creation of Utah’s eighth national monument, though they asked Obama to make it about 500,000 acres larger than the monument he named Wednesday.
Tribal members visit the Bears Ears area to perform ceremonies, collect herbs and wood for medicinal and spiritual intents, and do mending rituals.
Navajo Nation President? Russell Begaye called it an exciting day for his tribe and people of all cultures.
“We have always appeared to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gathering herbs and medicinal plants, and a place of prayer and sacredness, ” Begaye told. “The rocks, the winds, the land they are living, exhaling things that deserve timely and lasting protection.”
The Navajo Nation is one of five tribes that will get an elected official on a first-of-its-kind tribal commission for the Bears Ears monument. The panel will provide federal land managers with tribal expertise and historical knowledge about the area, federal officials said.
Tucked between existing national park and the Navajo reservation, the proposed monument features stunning vistas at every turn, with a mix of cliffs, plateaus, towering stone formations, rivers and valleys across broad expanses covered by sagebrush and juniper trees.
Opponents agree the area is a natural rich worth preserving but said the federal designation are generating restrictions on oil and gas developing as well residents’ they are able to camp, bike, hike and gathering wood.
No new mining and oil and gas development will be allowed within the monument borders, said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Members of Utah’s all-GOP congressional delegation had backed a plan to protect about 1.4 million acres at Bears Ears, while opening up other areas of the state for development.
To many residents in the smaller, predominantly Mormon town of Blanding that sits near the new monument, the proposal is a thinly veiled, repackaged move from environmental groups who recruited tribes after previous tries at the designation fizzled out.
In Nevada, retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid has pushed for protections at Gold Butte, a remote region northeast of Lake Mead, but GOP members of the state’s congressional delegation have been vocal opponents.
Bundy is one rancher who does not acknowledge federal jurisdiction in the area. He was accused of illegally permitting his kine to roam there after failing to pay more than $1.1 million in fees and penalties.
He has pleaded not guilty to charges in the 2014 stalemate with U.S. agents trying to round up his cattle.