SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump on Monday took the rare step of scaling back two sprawling national monuments in Utah, declaring that "public lands will once again be for public use" in a move cheered by Republican leaders who lobbied him to undo protections they considered overly broad.
The decision marks the first time in a half century that a president has undone these types of land protections. Tribal and environmental groups oppose the decision and began filing lawsuits Monday in a bid to stop Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Trump made the plan official during a speech at the State Capitol, where he signed proclamations to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Both monuments encompass millions of acres of land.
State officials said the protections were overly broad and closed off the area to energy development and other access.
Environmental and tribal groups say the designations are needed to protect important archaeological and cultural resources, especially the more than 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears site featuring thousands of Native American artifacts, including ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.
Trump argued that the people of Utah know best how to care for their land.
"Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington," Trump said. "And guess what? They're wrong."
Roughly 3,000 demonstrators lined up near the State Capitol to protest Trump's announcement. Some held signs that said, "Keep your tiny hands off our public lands," and they chanted, "Lock him up!" A smaller group gathered in support, including some who said they favor potential drilling or mining there that could create jobs. Bears Ears has no oil or gas, Zinke told reporters, although Grand Staircase-Escalante has coal.
"Your timeless bond with the outdoors should not be replaced with the whims of regulators thousands and thousands of miles away," Trump said. "I've come to Utah to take a very historic action to reverse federal overreach and restore the rights of this land to your citizens."
Bears Ears, created last December by President Barack Obama, will be reduced by about 85 percent, to 201,876 acres.
Grand Staircase-Escalante, designated in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, will be reduced from nearly 1.9 million acres to 1,003,863 acres.
Both were among a group of 27 monuments that Trump ordered Zinke to review this year.
Zinke accompanied Trump aboard Air Force One, as did Utah's Republican U.S. senators, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee. Hatch and other Utah Republican leaders pushed Trump to launch the review, saying the monuments designated by the former Democratic presidents locked up too much federal land.
Trump framed the decision as returning power to the state, saying, "You know and love this land the best and you know the best how to take care of your land." He said the decision would "give back your voice."
"Public lands will once again be for public use," Trump said to cheers.
Hatch, who introduced Trump, said that when "you talk, this president listens" and that Trump promised to help him with "federal overreach."
Earthjustice filed the first of several expected lawsuits Monday, calling the reduction of Grand Staircase-Escalante an abuse of the president's power that jeopardizes a "Dinosaur Shangri-la" full of fossils. Some of the dinosaur fossils sit on a plateau that is home to one of the country's largest known coal reserves, which could now be open to mining. The organization is representing eight conservation groups.
Native American leaders said they expect to file a lawsuit challenging the Bears Ears decision soon.
Patagonia President and CEO Rose Marcario said the outdoor-apparel company will join an expected court fight against the monument reduction, which she described as the "largest elimination of protected land in American history."
No president has tried to eliminate a monument, but some have reduced or redrawn the boundaries on 18 occasions, according to the National Park Service. The most recent instance came in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy slightly downsized Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico.
Trump's move against Bears Ears, covering lands considered sacred to tribes that long pushed for protections, marks his latest affront to Native Americans.
Trump overrode tribal objections to approve the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. He also used a White House event honoring Navajo Code Talkers to take a political jab at Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat he has nicknamed "Pocahontas" for her claim to have Native American heritage.
"One week ago today, our Code Talkers were disrespected. And one week later, we get this," said Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez, referring to the monuments.
Trump signed an executive order in April directing Zinke to review the protections, which Trump is able to upend under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The law gives presidents broad authority to declare federal lands as monuments and restrict their use.
The four teens accused of killing a man during a party at a local motel have been released from jail and are currently under the watch of pretrial services.
Lawrence Sampson-Kahn, 18, Kayson Russell, 19, Jayda Fortune, 17, and Mirelle Gorman, 16, were released from jail without bail on Nov. 20, according to court documents signed by Coconino County Superior Court Division 3 Judge Mark Moran.
The teens are charged with second-degree homicide after a fight during a party in Room 119 at the L Motel on South Milton Road led to the death of Jaron James, 23.
All four suspects have pleaded not-guilty.
Flagstaff Police claim that that the teens beat an extremely intoxicated James to death after he inappropriately touched Fortune and Gorman.
James’ death was caused by blunt force trauma to the head and face, according to the Coconino County Medical Examiner.
Judge Moran stated that the teens’ bond of $250,000 was excessive and that none of the accused were a flight risk due to the fact that they have lived in Flagstaff their entire lives and only Sampson-Kahn had any prior convictions.
Sampson-Kahn was convicted of misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia, according to court documents.
The release conditions require the teens to do random drug test, follow a 6 p.m. curfew, maintain a job or be enrolled in school and have no direct or indirect contact with the victim’s family.
James’ family opposed the release conditions, according to court documents.
According to the police report, Fortune and Gorman were the first to attack James after he repeatedly tried to touch them.
Fortune and Gorman were the first to attack James, with the two men joining shortly after.
The four teens then repeatedly hit James in the face, according to police.
James was very intoxicated during the incident and reportedly tried to “block his face lazily” while slipping in and out of consciousness, according to Russell’s interview with Flagstaff Police detectives.
When found by police, James’ face was swollen, with a busted lip and broken nose, according to the police report.
The Coconino County Attorney’s Office stated in court documents that they have strong evidence against Fortune and Sampson-Kahn.
“The court finds that the evidence is clear that the defendant punched the victim in the face with a glancing blow to the victims shoulder. Defendants blow to the victims face resulted in a broken nose for the victim,” according to the release conditions report referring to Sampson-Kahn.
Court documents referring to Fortune stated that the court found “that the evidence is clear, the defendant struck the victim multiple times in the face causing injury.”
The court has yet to determine the weight of the evidence against Gorman and Russell, who have admitted to being in the motel room the night of the incident but it is unclear if or how they struck James.
Archaeologists have long maintained that people who lived in the Grand Canyon region 1,000 years ago had a diet dominated by corn.
But one researcher who studies the people who lived south of the canyon rim is now calling that assumption into question. More likely is that these ancient pueblo people started and managed low-intensity fires to spur the growth of edible native plants that were their main food source, said Alan Sullivan, a professor of anthropology at the University of Cincinnati.
Sullivan has spent the past 30 years studying the people who lived in the Upper Basin, a 85-square mile area dominated by pinyon pine and juniper trees that stretches southeast of the South Rim. People known as Ancestral Puebloans or Grand Canyon Anasazi populated the area between 900 and 1200 AD before drifting away to other places, Sullivan said.
For his research, Sullivan has done extensive surveys of excavation sites in the area looking for items like corn kernels, cobs and pollen that would indicate a culture dependent on corn cultivation, but came up with scant evidence of that sort of lifestyle, he said.
What he did find much more frequently were signs of ruderals — plants that are the first to grow back after a disturbance like fire sweeps through an area. In addition to juniper berries and calorie-dense pinyon nuts, Sullivan found evidence that people relied on a range of edible plants including nutrient-rich amaranth and chenopodium, both wild relatives of quinoa.
He found pollen from these plants inside clay pots used by the Ancestral Puebloans and studied geologic layers that show a surge in concentrations of wild edible plants between 900 and 1200, compared to the centuries before and after.
There’s also the fact that tree rings dating back to the centuries the area was occupied by humans don’t show scars that would come about from major canopy scorching fires, suggesting the area only saw low-intensity fires during that time, Sullivan said. In the absence of people, those more intense fires are the norm for pinyon juniper woodlands.
“We have tried to connect the dots to align with what we know about forest and fire ecology and the archaeological record,” Sullivan said.
Then, last spring, Sullivan saw his hypothesis play out in real time. In June and July 2016, the Scott Fire burned 2,660 acres east of Tusayan. Kaibab National Forest archaeologist Neil Weintraub returned to the site the next spring and noticed a red plant growing all over the place. The plant turned out to be high-protein chenopodium, or fetid goosefoot, that Sullivan had found evidence of in the ancient sites in the Upper Basin.
“It smelled minty and we started munching on it and it tasted really good,” Weintraub said. He called Sullivan and a few weeks later, Sullivan flew across the country to see the site for himself. It was a eureka moment, Sullivan said. Edible plants hadn’t been growing in that area before the fire and no one had planted their seeds after the blaze. Clearly the seeds had been present in the area and just needed fire to kickstart their growth.
“To me that was conclusive evidence that we were on the right track essentially,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan and others noticed the plants also appeared to be concentrated around archaeological sites, which would support a hypothesis that people were using these plants, bringing them home, processing them and eating them, with some seeds getting dropped in the process.
Why would people have relied on wild plants instead of cultivating crops like corn?
Foraging makes sense considering the area’s climate, Weintraub said.
“When you think about the Coconino Plateau, it’s a very very dry area so...people moved around a lot to collect plants from different areas at different times of the year as those wild plants flowered and fruited,” he said.
Corn needs pretty regular summer rains, making it a risky endeavor to try in this region, Weintraub said.
The area is also characterized by thin, rocky soils that can support pinyon pines, junipers and the understory plants, “but it’s not corn country,” Sullivan said.
It’s amazing to think about what fire then does to the landscape, he said.
"If you can then transform these pinyon juniper forests with the application of fire...it’s almost magical, really, when you think about effects of fire on pinyon juniper woodland,” he said.
A diet based on wild plants and pinyon nuts would have been more well-rounded and nutritious than one dominated by corn as well, Sullivan said.
Several aspects of Sullivan’s research aligns with well known elements of Navajo culture and history, said Jason Nez, a freelance archaeologist who has worked for the National Park Service in the Upper Basin area.
Nez said he used to pick pinyon nuts in the area when he was younger and many Navajo families continue to do the same.
“For us modern Navajos it has been an important gathering area,” Nez said of the Upper Basin.
It is also well known among many Navajos, and especially those living in forested locations, that an area becomes more productive after a fire, he said. People tend to head to places that have recently burned, knowing, for example that certain plants and animals will come out after the fire.
Nez was at the site of the Scott Fire with Weintraub and said he recognized the fetid goosefoot as an edible plant.
Much of Sullivan’s research puts scientific backing to what native people already know, Nez said. The work is also valuable to tribes because they often don’t have the resources to study the people that inhabited the area long before them.
“It reinforces cultural connections to the past, it reinforces stories, reinforces songs,” Nez said. “We feel empowered, we feel strengthened, we feel stronger when this knowledge is proven.”
Looking at the pinyon-juniper woodlands of the Upper Basin today, Sullivan said it may be hard to imagine the area supported significant human settlement.
Fire exclusion has meant the forest has become overstocked while grazing contributed to the local eradication of much of the understory vegetation, he said.
“When you walk around the forests today, there is nothing but bare soil. They're rocky and it looks like who in the world could ever make a living here?” Sullivan said. “But if you back out the effects that we have inadvertently introduced to woodlands and introduce fire back into the equation they were probably pretty productive places to live."