“I’m approving the Bears Ears recommendation for you, Orrin,” President Donald Trump told Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch in a phone call the morning of Friday, Oct. 27. The president will visit Utah in December to announce the decision officially and will release more details at that time.
Based on Trump’s communications with Hatch, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and others, he is expected to approve Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recommendation that both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante be reduced in size. San Juan County commissioners praised the decision while local environmental and Native American groups responded critically.
“I was incredibly grateful when the President called this morning to let us know that he is approving Secretary Zinke’s recommendation on Bears Ears,” Hatch said in a statement. “Protecting sacred antiquities is a matter of critical importance, and Secretary Zinke and the Trump administration found a better way to do it by rolling up their sleeves, digging in, and talking with Native American tribes. We’ll continue working closely with locals moving forward to ensure that Utahns have a voice in this process.”
Natalie Landreth, senior staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, which represents three local tribes (Hopi, Zuni and Ute Mountain Ute), said that the senator’s statement was misleading.
“The tribes, [all] of them, worked to create this monument. They are the ones that advocated for it. The tribes have been saying for months, don’t touch it,” Landreth said. “And so it’s absolutely untrue to say that any of them worked with the administration in reducing it or that they even consulted the tribes. They absolutely did not.”
The San Juan County Commission, however, supported the announcement. San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman told The Times-Independent that the commission was glad to hear the news.
“As a commission we’re thrilled that President Trump has listened to the local concerns, listened to our delegation in Washington and has essentially said that he’s going to follow the recommendations of Secretary Zinke,” Lyman said. “We don’t know what those recommendations are in detail or even generally but we do know that he’s been here, he’s listened to us and so we’re happy with the announcement that something is going to be done and that Bears Ears is going to be reduced in size.”
The Native American advocacy group Utah Diné Bikéyah said that the decision is a sign of disrespect toward local Native Americans, who support Bears Ears National Monument.
“Secretary Zinke refused to meet with the Native American community in San Juan County, and locals cannot recall a single time in Senator Hatch’s 42-year career when he has ever visited our reservations in San Juan County. Senator Hatch does not represent grassroots low-income people. Instead of further agitating our community along racial lines, we ask President Trump to stop the harm he is causing. Please leave all protections in place,” said Utah Diné Bikéyah Chairman Willie Grayeyes in a statement.
Former President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears as a National Monument in 2016. In April, President Trump ordered the Department of Interior to conduct a review of 27 national monuments created between 1996 and 2016. Interior received approximately 76,500 comments regarding Bears Ears National Monument over the summer, with the majority in favor of preserving the monument.
“Comments expressed a variety of views on the [Bears Ears National Monument]; however federal and state elected officials from Utah strongly oppose the current [monument] boundary,” stated a memorandum from Secretary Zinke.
Zinke recommended that the 1.35-million-acre monument be reduced in size. Utah leaders have advocated for a 120,000-acre monument that would exclude some areas currently protected, such as the Indian Creek Recreation Area popular with Moab climbers. The area falls outside of what state lawmakers have suggested should remain a monument — and President Trump has said he will respect the state lawmakers’ requests.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was designated by then-President Bill Clinton in 1996. Hatch told reporters in Salt Lake City that the 1.9-million-acre monument would also be modified to allow coal mining in the Kaiparowits Plateau.
Landreth said that the announcement is no surprise to the Native American Rights Fund. “We generally expected the president would make the wrong decision on this.”
Landreth added that the next step could be an executive order from the president or some kind of proclamation limiting or revoking Bears Ears as a national monument.
“We’re prepared for it and we’re confident that he doesn’t have the authority to do this and he can expect it to be tied up in court for several years and ultimately it will fail,” Landreth said. “The tribes have already written their complaint and they’re ready to file a lawsuit immediately.”
Environmental organizations also quickly spoke out against the announcement.
“If President Trump illegally attacks Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, this will long be viewed as one of the most short-sighted and ill-conceived acts committed by a modern president. These monuments wisely safeguard some of our nation’s most spectacular wild places, cultural sites and scientific marvels. We are confident the federal courts will reject any such actions,” said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA).
After the president spoke with Hatch, he also called Herbert, Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Rob Bishop to share the news.
“I appreciate the president and the secretary’s efforts to listen to local concerns and seek a balance when it comes to the complex issues of managing and protecting our public lands,” Herbert said. “While we do not yet know the specifics of their final plan, I understand from our conversation that any final decision will honor our recommendations.”
Those recommendations, he said, were “that any new boundaries protect the extraordinary antiquities within these areas … that local Native Americans be given meaningful co-management of the lands in the Bears Ears region. And finally, that Congress be urged to pass appropriate protections for federal lands throughout Southern Utah.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders said at a press briefing that the president would visit Utah in early December.
“We will be releasing more details at that point,” she said.