President Obama designated two national monuments in Utah and Nevada Wednesday as part of the outgoing president’s efforts to secure and expand his environmental legacy, and to possibly bind the hands of President-elect Donald Trump.
The White House announced that The Bears Ears National Monument in Utah will cover 1.35 million acres in the Four Corners region. The move is a victory for Native American tribes and conservationists for whom the land is considered sacred, but sparked intense opposition from Republicans.
"This arrogant act by a lame duck president will not stand," Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah., tweeted.
The president also announced a 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument outside Las Vegas that will protect an ecologically fragile area that includes rock art, artifacts and fossils.
“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 landscapes,” Obama said in a statement.
The Gold Butte designation was applauded by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who said he was “overjoyed” at the news.
“President Obama is a courageous man. I could not be more grateful to him and his team for working with me to make this happen, and for everything he has done to protect public lands in Nevada. By designating Gold Butte a national monument, President Obama has shown once again why he is one of greatest environmental presidents in American history,” Reid said in a statement.
In Utah, state Republican leaders claimed the designation there would add another layer of federal control, and close the area to new energy development. While Republicans agreed the area is worth preserving, they expressed concern that it would restrict energy development, as well as the ability of residents to camp, hike and gather wood in the area.
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz said Obama had ruined a bipartisan compromise in the works.
"After years of painstaking negotiations with a diverse coalition, Utah had a comprehensive bipartisan solution on the table that would have protected the Bears Ears and provided a balanced solution. Instead, the president's midnight proclamation cherry picked provisions of the Public Lands Initiative and disregarded the economic development and multi-use provisions necessary for a balanced compromise,” he said.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said his office is planning a lawsuit over the issue.
“It is extremely disappointing that President Obama has declared another national monument here in Utah, ignoring the voices of so many in our state, particularly those closest to the designated space,” Reyes said. “By significantly restricting access to a large portion of public lands in Utah, the President weakens land management capabilities and fails to protect those the Antiquities Act intended to benefit.”
However, Native American groups were delighted, with Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye calling it an exciting day.
"We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge," Begaye said. "The rocks, the winds, the land — they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection."
Obama’s latest environmental move is the latest in a series of actions to nail down his legacy before Trump is inaugurated. Trump has pledged to remove many environmental regulations to drilling and other energy mining, and has promised to undo much of Obama’s environmental agenda.
Last week, the president ordered U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and certain areas in the Atlantic Ocean placed "indefinitely" off-limits for future oil and gas leases. He has also blocked new mining claims outside Yellowstone National Park.
While the monuments were designated by executive action, it may require action by Congress to remove. Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told The Associated Press that the Antiquities Act allows presidents to create monuments, but does not give them authority to undo one.
However, that did not stop congressional Republicans from saying they intended to overturn Obama’s latest move. Rep. Chaffetz said he looked forward to helping President-elect Trump overturn the Utah designation.
"We look forward to working with President-elect Trump to follow through on his commitment to repeal midnight regulations. We will work to repeal this top-down decision and replace it with one that garners local support and creates a balanced, win-win solution,” he said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.