The areas newly protected from development and various activities are the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada. Both areas are owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Obama said in a statement that the designations "protect some of our country's most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes."
"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," he continued.
Obama created the designations using his unilateral authority under the Antiquities Act, acting with just about three weeks left before President-elect Donald Trump takes office.
It's unclear if Trump could unilaterally undo Obama's designations, because it has never been tried before. Some Republicans, including House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), say it is within Trump's power, though the Obama administration says the Antiquities Act does not allow monument designations to be undone.
But the Wednesday actions, combined with Obama's legacy of unilaterally protecting more land and water than any previous president, could lead Congress to roll back the protections or limit future presidents' powers under the Antiquities Act.
The 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears area could be the most controversial of Obama's dozens of national monuments, in part because it shuts down any new leases for mining or oil and natural gas, exploration, along with other development and potential harms.
Utah's political leaders and its all-GOP congressional delegation oppose the national monument, and pledged before Wednesday's announcement to seek action through Congress or Trump's administration to undo the protections.
The monument protects numerous sites that are significant to nearby American Indian tribes for cultural, religious and historic reasons.
The tribes have long called for land protections in the area. The Utah congressional delegation has recently pushed a legislative package it calls the Public Lands Initiative to protect some areas and avoid a monument designation, although it never passed.
Christie Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, cited that proposal and others in recent decades as Obama's guiding principles for the designation.
"The new monument responds to both of these recent proposals to include the areas where there is the strongest agreement about the need for protection, and to ensure that traditional uses and historical activities, including tribal acts, grazing and outdoor recreation can continue," she told reporters.
Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, welcomed the Bears Ears designation, even though it is smaller than his tribe and others hoped for.
"This is an exciting day for the Navajo Nation, for our traditional leaders, for elected leaders across the Navajo Nation, and also the tribes that live in area who have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants and a place of prayer and sacredness," he said.
But Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) slammed Obama's decision.
"This arrogant act by a lame duck president will not stand," Lee tweeted Wednesday.
"I will work tirelessly with Congress & incoming Trump administration to honor the will of Utahns and undo this monument designation," he added.
Goldfuss said if that happens, it wouldn't be through Trump's executive authority.
"In terms of whether it can be overturned, no," she told reporters. "The Antiquities Act gives the president the authority to create monuments, but does not provide explicit authority to undo them."
The Nevada monument is also controversial, for different reasons.
The Gold Butte area is next to the ranch of Cliven Bundy and the site of an armed standoff between federal authorities and self-styled militia members in 2014.
The monument, pushed by outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) among others, protects numerous tribal sites, important landscapes, rare fossils and more.
"Today's designation will better protect these cultural and archeological treasures, as well as the areas that are currently used by tribes for traditional purposes," Goldfuss said.
Obama Designates Two New National Monuments, Protecting 1.65 Million Acres
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The monuments are Mr. Obama’s latest effort to protect public lands and waters from development and to nail down as much of his environmental legacy as he can before Donald J. Trump assumes the presidency on Jan. 20.
But some local residents and elected Republicans have opposed the Obama administration’s extensive efforts to protect Western landscapes, calling them federal land grabs, and Utah officials voiced vehement opposition on Wednesday. The family of a Nevada rancher, Cliven Bundy, helped take over a national wildlife refuge this year in protest against such federal actions.
The new desert monuments, designated under the executive authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act, encompass Native American sites of sacred and archaeological importance, as well as wildlife habitats and hiking and hunting terrain.
Efforts to place the Bears Ears Buttes under federal protection have been underway since 1936, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s interior secretary, Harold L. Ickes, proposed the monument designation. Native American tribes began promoting legislation to protect Gold Butte in 2008.
“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,” Mr. Obama said in a statement.
In Utah, the Bears Ears designation was roundly opposed by statewide elected officials and the congressional delegation.
“President Obama’s unilateral decision to invoke the Antiquities Act in Utah politicizes a long-simmering conflict,” said Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah. “The midnight move is a slap in the face to the people of Utah, attempting to silence the voices of those who will bear the heavy burden it imposes.”
Representative Rob Bishop, Republican of Utah and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has authority over public lands issues, promised to work to repeal the designation.
Mr. Obama has designated about 553 million acres of public lands and waters as parks, monuments or wilderness areas, more than any of his predecessors. While Mr. Trump has vowed to undo Mr. Obama’s environmental agenda, White House officials said they did not believe he would have the authority to reverse the designations. No president has undone a predecessor’s designations in the law’s 110-year history.
“The Antiquities Act gives the authority to create monuments and does not give explicit authority to undo them,” said Christy Goldfuss, the managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
However, after Mr. Obama this month used an obscure provision of a 1953 law to place about 115 million acres in the Arctic Ocean and about 3.8 million acres of the Atlantic Ocean permanently off-limits to drilling, opponents, including oil companies, said they intended to file a legal challenge.
Native American groups and environmentalists hailed Mr. Obama’s moves Wednesday in Nevada and Utah. Mr. Obama’s designation of Bears Ears as a national monument will create a first-of-its-kind tribal commission of representatives from the five Native American tribes that live in the region. The commission will advise the monument’s federal managers.
“This is an exciting day for Navajo Nation,” Russell Begaye, the tribe’s president, said in a phone call with reporters.
“We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and plants and as a place of sacredness,” he said. “It is a place of safety and fortitude. It is a place where our ancestors hid and survived from U.S. cavalry during the Long War.”
Obama Designates Two New National Monuments In Nevada And Utah
President Obama has designated two areas in the deserts of southern Nevada and Utah as national monuments, after years of fighting and debate over the management of both areas.
The newly created Bears Ears National Monument will protect roughly 1.35 million acres of land in southeast Utah from future development. Gold Butte National Monument will give federal protections to roughly 300,000 acres in southwest Nevada, not far from the site where local ranchers and law enforcement had an armed standoff just two years ago.
In a statement, Obama said the designations "protect some of our country's most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archaeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes."
Those protections begin immediately, but how long they'll last is uncertain.
State and local politicians in Utah and Nevada have vowed to fight any federal designations on state land, calling them land grabs and executive overreach — arguments heard in many parts of the rural West.
They may have an advocate in President-elect Donald Trump, who has promised to undo many of Obama's policies.
Obama has used executive power to establish or expand national monuments 29 times during his tenure, most recently in California, Hawaii and the Atlantic Ocean. But the designations in Nevada and Utah, two largely rural, Republican-held states, could prove to be the most contentious.
The ownership and management of land is one of the biggest issues in both states, for understandable reasons. More than 80 percent of the land in Nevada is owned by the federal government. In Utah, it's roughly 65 percent. Republican lawmakers and rural constituents have tried for years to get the federal government to give some of that land back to the states, arguing that local governments are better able to manage local resources.
Obama's move to establish the national monuments does the opposite.
"[This] midnight move is a slap in the face to the people of Utah, attempting to silence the voices of those who will bear the heavy burden it imposes," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, in a statement. "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."
The designation is a win for a number of groups. Environmental activists and Native American tribes have been fighting for protection of both areas for years and are applauding the decision.
The Navajo, Hopi, Uintah & Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni all have ancestral ties to Bears Ears. Under the new designation, they'll co-manage the national monument with the federal government and will still be allowed to access the land for tribal ceremonies, firewood and herb collection, hunting, grazing and outdoor recreation.
"As a coalition of five sovereign Native American tribes in the region, we are confident that today's announcement of collaborative management will protect a cultural landscape that we have known since time immemorial," said Alfred Lomahquahu, vice chairman of Hope Tribe.
Gold Butte is home to the Moapa Band of Paiutes and has a number of archaeological sites, which have seen a recent rise in vandalism as anti-federal-government sentiments have simmered in Nevada.
Until recently, the federal government had stopped managing Gold Butte entirely, owing to safety concerns.
There are concerns that Obama's designations could add fuel to that fire and call into question the very future of the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the president the power to establish or expand national monuments.