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Biden should restore Bears Ears, an important step in protecting America’s public lands

“This place is filled with cultural heritage. That cultural heritage belongs to every single American,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in Utah last week.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland tours near ancient dwellings along the Butler Wash trail during a visit to Bears Ears National Monument Thursday, April 8, 2021, near Blanding, Utah.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland tours near ancient dwellings during a visit to Bears Ears National Monument on April 8, 2021.
Rick Bowmer/AP Photos

America’s greatest treasure is its public lands, the majestic national parks, forests, wildlife preserves, conservation areas and monuments that offer us a chance to escape from our daily routine and appreciate our nation’s unspoiled natural beauty.

In 2017, Donald Trump showed his disdain for this national heritage when he signed an executive order that virtually wiped out the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, reducing its protected acreage by 85%.

Trump gave no reason for his decision, which also gutted the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, And since then, as one might easily have predicted, a crush of visitors has descended, driving noisy ATVs and snatching up shards of ancient Pueblo Indian pottery and other historic artifacts.

Two small mineral extraction operations also have since opened up. And federal funding for archaeological projects in the area has ended.

President Joe Biden should move quickly to prevent more of the same, or worse. A new executive order that restores the previous boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is needed.

We expect that recommendation soon from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who toured both areas last week. Trump’s order was challenged in federal court by conservation groups, but the case is still pending.

A move by Biden is all the more crucial.

A historic natural area set aside for conservation — and in this case one that is sacred to several Native American tribes — should not be left vulnerable to thoughtless tourists and profit-hungry developers and miners.

“It’s our obligation to make sure that we protect lands for future generations,” as Haaland told reporters during her tour. “This place is filled with cultural heritage. That cultural heritage belongs to every single American.”

Five years ago, researchers reported an alarming finding: Humans had already destroyed a tenth of Earth’s wilderness areas in the previous 25 years. Within a century, none might remain.

Restoring Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is a small step in reversing that trend and protecting America’s great treasure, our public lands.

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