U.S. presidents have to walk and chew gum at the same time. For President Joe Biden, that has meant rolling out a life-saving vaccination, putting together legislation to invest in infrastructure, pulling out of Afghanistan, calling for immigration reforms and, more recently, ensuring the United States does not default on its debts through a GOP-backed congressional failure to lift the debt ceiling.
And those are just some of the issues Biden has been dealing with since being elected in November. Yes, this is only the first year of his presidency, nine months so packed with action that it feels as though years have passed. Still, there is much more to do.
It’s hardly surprising Biden has not moved more quickly to restore protection to Bears Ears National Monument, reduced significantly by the Trump administration. There are only 24 hours in a day.
However, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland recommended in June that the White House expand Bears Ears, along with Grand Staircase-Escalante — restoring protections to lands considered sacred by Native tribes of the Southwest, including Hopi, Navajo and Pueblo people.
Now, tribal leaders are demanding Biden take “immediate action” to do just that, according to the Washington Post. Delay is unthinkable, they say, because sacred sites are being degraded and Indigenous settlements near the monuments are threatened by mining, grazing and looting.
For Biden, this decision should be simple. He campaigned on reversing Trump rollbacks of protections for national monuments. He needs to keep those promises, especially considering how important the Native vote was in securing his election. Arizona, after all, went blue — and Native voters turned out and voted overwhelmingly for the Democrat.
Much of the Biden agenda is stalled in Congress, where moderate and progressive Democrats are battling and Republicans oppose nearly 100 percent of anything being considered. However, presidents have executive powers they can — and should — use when necessary.
Using the 1906 Antiquities Act, presidents have broad powers to safeguard threatened areas. Then-President Barack Obama first protected Bears Ears in 2016, listening to a tribal coalition whose members have long ties to the area. Grand Staircase-Escalante was preserved by former President Bill Clinton. Biden was wise enough to order the Interior Department to review monuments on his first day in office. Yet almost 10 months later, no final decision has been announced.
In the meantime, recreation enthusiasts are trekking across what should be protected areas, stealing artifacts, defacing rock art and potentially causing lasting damage.
Members of Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni — have to stand by and watch land they consider sacred defiled. Members worry, too, about Bureau of Land Management officials who are ignoring tribal input and continuing to run the area as if former President Donald Trump were still in office. Plans made now to dig water wells for cattle, allow additional motorized vehicles and expand campgrounds could be kept even if the monuments are expanded.
Promises made during campaigns cannot always be kept given circumstances and political realities. That’s not the case for preserving the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments. Indigenous Peoples Day is Oct. 11, just a few weeks away. What a perfect time for a president to announce that, yes, he will keep his campaign promises to the first peoples of this continent.