The two bluffs known as the 'Bears Ears' in the Bears Ears National Monument
George Frey/Getty Images
antecedent / power

The Battle for Control of Public Lands

There's a long history of states challenging the federal government, and ignoring Native American claims to the land at issue.
President Trump recently revealed that he will substantially shrink Bears Ears National Monument, a million-plus acre tract of federal land in Utah that had been protected by President Obama. Trump will reportedly be traveling to Utah in December to make the formal announcement.

This move is hardly a surprise. Trump made his views on the subject clear when he first initiated a review of the monument’s protected status, describing it as a “massive federal land grab.” “Today we’re putting the states back in charge,” he crowed. “It’s a big thing.”

Trump’s announcement likely warmed the hearts of Utah’s political leaders, who have long demanded the “return” of federal lands to state control. In 2012, Utah enacted a law purporting to mandate this transfer — a statute cited by Ammon Bundy to defend his armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon.

But this argument has two big flaws. First, the states were never “in charge” of these lands in the first place. The “Founders” that conservatives purport to revere explicitly determined that the federal government, not the states, would control public lands in the West. The Constitution gives the federal government power over “Property belonging to the United States.” Beginning in 1812, Congress required nearly every new state — including Utah — to foreswear all rights to federal land upon admission.

But the second flaw concerns the way the fight over Western lands is painted — as yet another competition between states representing local interests and a distant, overbearing federal bureaucracy. In fact, as Bears Ears highlights, the question of federal lands has always involved another group of locals decidedly not represented by states: Native nations, whose land ownership predates the United States and who had their lands stripped by the federal government and the states.
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