Access Fund Takes the Offensive in Bears Ears Lawsuit

For the last two years, Access Fund has been fighting off attempts by the Department of Justice to transfer and to outright dismiss its lawsuit to defend Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, an irreplaceable landscape that is home to world-class climbing. After many months of procedural battles—all of which we’ve won—Access Fund and its co-plaintiffs have now taken an offensive position with a motion that could lead to a victory on the merits.

Climbing in Bears Ears National Monument | Ute (Nuu-agha-tuvu-pu) and Pueblo Territories | © D. Scott Clark

How It Started: A Look Back

On December 4, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order to reduce Bears Ears National Monument by 85%, exposing nearly 40% of climbing areas within the original boundaries. Two days later, Access Fund took a legal stand, filing a complaint with the US District Court in Washington, DC to defend the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. Access Fund asserts that President Trump's proclamation to replace Bears Ears National Monument with two smaller, disconnected units is unlawful because it exceeds the authority provided to the office of the President by the Antiquities Act and the Property Clause of the United States Constitution. You can read more about Access Fund's position on the Bears Ears reduction in detail here.

After a series of procedural victories, Access Fund and co-plaintiffs submitted an updated legal complaint on November 7, 2019 at the request of DC District Judge Chutkan. Judge Chutkan requested a more complete picture of how the plaintiffs have been harmed in the two years since Bears Ears was eviscerated. In those two years, Access Fund has invested hundreds of hours of advocacy work, research, analysis, and education to protect Bears Ears and restore protections to the original 1.3 million acres. We also used the opportunity to update declarations from our member climbers in support of legal standing.

Photo courtesy of Manoah Ainuu. © Angelo Roman

A Turning Point: Access Fund Takes Offensive

On January 9, 2020, Access Fund moved to win the case, filing a motion for partial summary judgment. The motion asserts that President Trump lacked legal authority under the U.S. Constitution and the Antiquities Act to revoke the designation of Bears Ears National Monument. That power is reserved by Congress. If the court agrees on this point, Bears Ears could be restored.

"We have reached a pivotal moment in the fight for Bears Ears, and we are now on the offensive," says Chris Winter, Executive Director for Access Fund. "Protecting our public lands takes long-term commitment and dedication, and our community must continue to defend Bears Ears. Our work is far from over."

Access Fund’s motion triggered a series of legal briefs, which will be submitted to the court throughout the first half of 2020. We hope to have a decision on the motion by the end of the year.

Federal litigation can be a slow and time consuming process, but Access Fund, along with the tribes and other conservation groups who have joined in this fight, are now firmly in the driver’s seat and on the offensive. We will keep you posted on any updates on the case, as well as updates to the near-finalized Bears Ears National Monument Management Plan.

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