In one of his final acts as president, Barack Obama designated two large areas in Utah and Nevada as national monuments to be protected under federal law. The areas total more than 1.5 million acres.
The move was applauded by Native American and environmental groups, but some Republican lawmakers were furious with Obama's late-term move.
In a White House statement, Obama said the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument and Gold Butte National Monument contain “some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archaeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes.”
Obama gave the land special federal recognition under the Antiquities Act, the 1906 law signed by Theodore Roosevelt that gives the president authority to declare national monuments on public lands.
"For the first time in history, a president has used the Antiquities Act to honor the request of Tribal Nations to protect our sacred sites," said Davis Filfred, a Navajo Nation Council delegate, according to the Salt Lake City Tribune.
But Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah said he was “outraged” by the move.
“President Obama’s unilateral decision to invoke the Antiquities Act in Utah politicizes a long-simmering conflict,” Chaffetz said in a press release. “This unfortunate act threatens to further inflame controversies that were near resolution. 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.”
Russell Begaye, the president of the Navajo Nation, had a different opinion of Obama's decision.
According to the Salt Lake City Tribune, Begaye said the monument's size is "sufficient" to protect the tribe's sacred areas, "where our people gather herbs and where our people go out and do ceremonial events.”
"The Bears Ears region is a special, distinctive and significant place to surrounding tribes as well as my nation, the Navajo nation," Begaye said. "These places, the rocks, the wind, the land -- they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection."