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It's time to undo the federal land grab of Bears Ears

| Friday, May 19, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks at a news conference after having met with members of the Bears Ears Commission at the Bureau of Land Management office at the Gateway in Salt Lake City. (Scott Sommerdorf/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

In a remote corner of southern Utah, twin buttes tower over a rugged landscape of rolling foothills and jagged red rock. The two mesas, known as the Bears Ears, represent the latest battlefield in an escalating war over public lands — the results of which will have widespread implications for all Americans.

If you've never heard of Bears Ears, you will; if you don't care, you should.

The Bears Ears are sacred to local Native American tribes, and the surrounding area is home to thousands of archaeological sites that detail the history of the land's ancient inhabitants. That these sites deserve protection is beyond dispute. But how they should be protected is a matter of significant disagreement.

Recognizing the value of the archaeological and environmental features surrounding Bears Ears, I joined other members of Utah's congressional delegation in working with locals, Native American tribes and government leaders to develop a plan to preserve this land for future generations. Together, we held meetings with hundreds of stakeholders over a three-year period to determine the best path forward.

In good faith, we coordinated with President Barack Obama on our plans. But he betrayed us, forgoing our grass-roots effort in favor of a top-down monument designation — unprecedented in size and scope.

When Obama declared the Bears Ears National Monument, he ignored the years of work that Utah's congressional delegation spent fighting to pass legislation to protect the region through a fair and open process. He ignored the best interests of Utah and cast aside the will of the people — all in favor of a unilateral approach meant to satisfy the demands of far-left interest groups.

Obama locked away an astonishing 1.35 million acres, citing his prerogative under the Antiquities Act — a century-old law intended to give presidents only limited authority to designate special landmarks. Obama — and indeed, many of his predecessors — wielded this law as a blunt instrument for executive overreach.

The act was a well-intentioned response to a serious problem: the looting and destruction of cultural and archaeological sites. When applied as intended, the law has been indispensable in preserving our nation's rich cultural heritage. But the law has been abused by past presidents to advance a radical political agenda.

It was never supposed to be this way. When the act was passed, Rep. John Lacey of Iowa called “evil” the very notion that the president would use the law to designate more than a few square miles of land.

Obama perpetuated a dangerous precedent that undermines Congress' constitutional obligation to manage lands within the federal domain. Unless we act now to reset this precedent, the consequences for future generations could be dire.

President Trump stands ready to undo the harm brought about by past presidents' overreach. Indeed, in all my years of public service, I have never seen a president so committed to reining in the federal government and so eager to address the problems caused by these overbearing monument designations.

I believe we can set a new precedent regarding the management of federal lands, one that restores the original meaning of the Antiquities Act, returns power to the people and rebuilds trust between the states and the federal government.

Orrin Hatch, a Republican, represents Utah in the U.S. Senate.

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