IN THE sere wilderness of southern Utah, green highlands retain and filter water from storms, providing sustenance for plants, animals and people. The Navajo, who lived in the region long before Europeans set foot on the continent, refer to such areas as nahodishgish—places to be left alone. They sit at the centre of Bears Ears—a 1.35m-acre reserve teeming with archaeological, paleontological, and natural wonders that Barack Obama designated as a national monument on December 28th 2016.
On December 4th President Donald Trump shrunk Bears Ears by 85%, splitting the remaining roughly 200,000 acres into two separate, discontiguous monuments. He also shrunk the nearby 1.9m acre Grand Staircase National Monument, created by Bill Clinton in 1996, and split its remaining roughly 1m acres into three separate monuments. It was the single biggest undoing of federal land protections in American history.
The move delighted conservative lawmakers, particularly Utah’s, who virulently opposed the creation of Bears Ears. The Antiquities Act, passed in 1906, gives presidents the power to declare parcels of federal land containing “objects of historic or scientific interest” national monuments. Presidents have used it to create more than 150 national monuments, most out West, where the federal government owns nearly half the land. Many Republicans feel presidents have overused that power; Rob Bishop, a Republican congressman from Utah, introduced a bill this autumn that would dramatically curtail it.
Some see the president’s action as a particular gift to Orrin Hatch, Utah’s 83-year-old senior senator, who is considering retirement. Mr Trump wants him to run again next year. If he were to leave the Senate he would probably be succeeded by Mitt Romney who, like Mr Hatch, is a Mormon Republican deeply popular in Utah, but, unlike him, is no fan of the president.
Conservationists immediately sued, arguing that the Antiquities Act and subsequent legislation authorise a president to declare national monuments, but not to undo previous declarations. They fear new drilling and mining, which is permitted on federally owned land but not in national monuments. They also fear economic harm: jobs, personal income and population have all grown in the Grand Staircase region since 2001, thanks to tourists and businesses that serve them. Opponents argue that national-monument declarations are no more binding on future presidents than other executive orders.
This will not be an isolated fight. Ryan Zinke, Mr Trump’s interior secretary, issued a report examining 27 national monuments created since 1996. It recommends boundary revisions to two more monuments—Cascade-Siskiyou on the Oregon-California border and Gold Butte in Nevada—and management changes that could allow more fishing, tree-cutting and vehicles in six more.