Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has issued a preliminary recommendation to shrink the boundary of the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, which was established in December by former President Barack Obama. In a June 12 memorandum to President Donald Trump, Zinke said that under the Antiquities Act, the monument should be the “smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects [of cultural significance].”
“It would have been more appropriate to protect only specific areas of cultural and historic importance within the current Bears Ears boundary,” Zinke’s report stated.
The memorandum says for areas within the monument that were properly protected under the Antiquities Act the management plan is too restrictive and tribal interests have not been given an adequate role in the management. Zinke additionally recommends that Congress act to protect specific areas within the current Bears Ears boundaries as national recreation areas and conservation areas, and tribes be granted co-management of areas containing cultural sites.
The memorandum is a preliminary report and the U.S. Department of the Interior will release final recommendations later this year.
Opponents of the monument and those who support it quickly weighed in on Zinke’s recommendations.
“I’m thrilled with the consideration that Secretary Zinke has given us,” said San Juan County commissioner Phil Lyman. “… From a local standpoint there’s a lot to learn and a lot to absorb about San Juan County and I think he’s doing the very best that he can and acknowledging that there’s more work to be done.”
Lyman praised efforts by Utah’s congressional delegation while also expressing skepticism of the federal government. He said he hopes Zinke’s recommendation will result in decisions based on local input.
“I’m very skeptical about Congress’s ability to come up with a good recommendation but it’s the only system we have,” he said. “I would like to see just some common-sense land management decisions and in order for that to happen you’re going to have to have the people making those decisions be exposed to a little bit of the political accountability that comes with making a land-use decision.”
“Currently, the BLM has no political accountability and they do a horrible job of managing and they do a horrible job of interfacing with the people,” Lyman added. “So what I would like to see … is something that puts the local voice back into the equation with the BLM and that brings the state’s more front and center on these decisions.”
Farm Bureau CEO Randy Parker called the memorandum “a measured response” and said that for both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, “the presidential declaration missed the mark by leaps and bounds” and constituted government overreach.
“From our standpoint it’s about rural communities, rural economies, continued historic access to those resources. … When you move to a monument or you come up with a new resource plan … ultimately it impacts access. Both [monument declarations] said grazing will continue, but it changes dramatically the dynamic and the cost and it ramps up the uncertainties for the ranching families that have been out there for generations.”
Friends of Cedar Mesa, a conservation-focused nonprofit based in Bluff, has supported the monument designation throughout the process.
“Despite Secretary Zinke’s statements that he believes this area is ’drop dead gorgeous‘ and should be protected, his recommendation would leave many places of enormous scientific, historic, spiritual, and recreational value unprotected and open for exploitation by out-of-state extractive corporations,” said Josh Ewing, the group’s executive director. “While we always favored a legislative solution and worked harder than any conservation group on the Public Lands Initiative, preemptively removing protection for this landscape in blind hope that Congress might someday do its job flies in the face of history and is a recipe for a management disaster.”
While Congress is authorized to make adjustments to monuments, many legal scholars have said the president does not have the authority to rescind national monuments designated by previous presidents.
Bob Keiter, a law professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune that while there is precedent for Congress or a president to shrink a national monument, Trump “has the authority to create monuments but not un-designate them. It’s never been tried by a president before.”
Utah politicians, including Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee and Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Gov. Gary Herbert, quickly issued statements supporting Zinke’s recommendation.
“This is an important first step in reversing President Obama’s gross abuse of the Antiquities Act. Secretary Zinke’s exemplary effort to engage with local Utahns is to be commended,” Chaffetz said.
Utah Navajo Nation Councilman Davis Filfred said Zinke falsely claimed tribal leaders oppose the monument.
“I don’t agree with [the recommendations],” Filfred said. “We don’t want to rescind it and we don’t want it downsized. We told [Zinke] directly. … I don’t know which [tribal leaders] he talked to but in terms of the coalition and the commissioners of the Bears Ears, we’re all on one note. We didn’t say that it’s okay for him to downsize it.”
The Utah Diné Bikéyah, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Outdoor Alliance and other conservation and recreation groups have come out against the recommendation to downsize the monument.
Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), said SUWA is “disappointed with Secretary Zinke’s recommendation.”
“The Antiquities Act simply does not allow the president to rescind or to partially revoke a national monument and that’s exactly what Secretary Zinke seems to be calling for,” Bloch said.
SUWA, he said, will work with Congress to ensure that cultural sites and other resources identified in the Obama administration’s Bears Ears proclamation are fully protected. But SUWA will take no immediate legal action, he said.
“Zinke’s order doesn’t change the fact that the 1.35-million-acre Bear’s Ears National Monument remains on the books and Interior is obligated to meet the commitments made in President Obama’s Proclamation,” Bloch said.
In April, President Trump ordered the Interior Department to conduct a review of 27 national monuments created between 1996 and 2016. The order specifically asked Zinke to consider whether the designation of the monument was consistent with the goals of the Antiquities Act and how the designation of the monument will affect land use. Zinke went on a four-day listening tour of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments then released a request for public comment on the 27 national monuments. The Bears Ears comment period closed after two weeks on May 26. Public comments for other monuments are due by July 10.
The Interior Department received approximately 76,500 comments regarding Bears Ears National Monument, according to Zinke’s memorandum.
“Comments expressed a variety of views on the [monument]; however federal and state elected officials from Utah strongly oppose the current [monument] boundary,” the memorandum states.
A May poll commissioned by the Utah Diné Bikéyah and conducted by Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies found that two-thirds of Utahns support the Bears Ears monument. Polling earlier in the year by a variety of groups found Utahns divided or opposed to the monument.
The memorandum was an interim report to the president and not Secretary Zinke’s last word on the matter. The Interior Department’s final report and recommendation will come after the review period for the rest of the national monuments closes July 10.
“[T]he Antiquities Act itself doesn’t grant the authority to change boundaries or to rescind monuments, so it’s our position and it’s really the position of the majority legal scholars that that is Congress’s role,” said Tim Peterson, Utah wildlands program director for the Grand Canyon Trust.
If the president takes executive action, Peterson said, the Grand Canyon Trust will “support the tribes in their action to file litigation against the executive action, and we will too, along with a coalition of conservation groups.”
ByBy Rose Egelhoff