WASHINGTON – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday recommended that the new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah be reduced in size and said Congress should step in to designate how selected areas of the 1.3 million-acre site are managed.
Zinke made the recommendation as part of an interim report to President Donald Trump on the scenic swath of southern Utah with red rock plateaus, cliffs and canyons on land considered sacred to tribes.
Zinke’s decision met immediate opposition from Ute Mountain Ute tribal member Regina Whiteskunk, who lobbied for the monument as co-chairman of the Intertribal Coalition. Whiteskunk said she was “appalled” at the announcement to try to reduce the monument’s size.
The Ute Mountain Ute tribe is one of five tribes on a commission to advise monument managers about protecting cultural resources on the land, including tribal access for rituals and ceremonies.
Trump signed an executive order in April directing Zinke to review the designation of dozens of national monuments on federal lands, calling the protection efforts “a massive federal land grab” by previous administrations.
Trump and other Republicans have singled out former President Barack Obama’s designation of Bears Ears, calling it an unnecessary layer of federal control that hurts local economies by closing the area to new energy development. They also say it isn’t the best way to protect the land.
Across Southwest Colorado, conservationists were quick to speak out against this decision and the implications for public lands under the Trump Administration.
Scott Braden, wilderness and public lands advocate for Conservation Colorado, said the recommendations were a “slap in the face to all of us who care about and cherish our country’s national parks and monuments.”
Braden added that in this case these recommendations could undo the protections for thousands of the sites contained within Bears Ears, which is estimated to have more than 100,000 archaeological sites.
He said by following this recommendation, the administration would break the trusts of five sovereign tribes that were involved in the process of gaining protection for the Monument and further cement its stance on public lands
“Coloradans should rid themselves of any harbored hopes that President Trump or his loyal subordinates like Secretary Zinke will somehow be moderate on public lands issues. Their assault on public lands is real, and none of Colorado’s public lands are safe from it,” Braden said.
Shelley Silbert, executive director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, said the process for the review was problematic as it largely left out native officials who were involved in the original efforts to seek protection for their ancestral lands.
Hatch, however, said that the review process, and outcome, showed a willingness from the federal government to work with local leaders and should be a blueprint for the future.
Utah’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert, echoed Hatch’s remarks.
“This interim report is an important first step towards re-establishing sound land management practices for one of the most special areas in the world,” Herbert said in a statement.
He said he hopes the president takes the recommendation to reduce the size of Bears Ears seriously.
Silbert responded by saying her organization is prepared to take action if the review recommendations are followed.
“We will be involved in litigation if the monument is reduced in size,” she said.
In response to the review, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, posted a video on Twitter expressing his support for the recommendation to reduce the scope of Bears Ears
“This recommendation reflects a balance of our shared priorities of protecting this land and the antiquities that are found on it while still preserving local involvement and taking into consideration the needs of the local communities,” Hatch said.
However, the review includes more than just recommendations to reduce the total size of the monument. It also calls for:
Authorization by Congress to co-manage culturally significant lands within the new boundaries;The use of several different conservation designation for the areas currently within Bears Ears. Examples would be labeling of some areas as National Recreation Areas and National Conservation Area, both of which carry less protection than the current Monument designation;Clarification of how Wilderness areas and Wilderness Study Areas are managed when they are within a monument.Zinke toured Bears Ears last month on foot, horseback and helicopter and met with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and other state leaders. Herbert and other Utah Republicans oppose Obama’s designation of the Bears Ears National Monument.
The Journal Staff Writer Jim Mimiaga and the Associated Press contributed to this report.