President Donald Trump is shrinking two national monuments in Utah, accepting the recommendation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to reverse protections established by two Democratic presidents to more than 3.6 million acres.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he was “incredibly grateful” that Trump called him Friday to say he is approving Zinke’s proposal on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. He and Trump “believe in the importance of protecting these sacred antiquities,” but there is “a better way to do it” by working with local officials and tribes, Hatch said.
Hatch’s office said Trump said, “I’m approving the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase recommendation for you, Orrin.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would not confirm that Trump will shrink the Utah monuments, saying she did not want to “get ahead of the president’s announcement.”
Zinke recommended that the two Utah monuments be shrunk, along with Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou.
Zinke’s recommendation, made public in September, prompted an outcry from environmental groups that promised to take the Trump administration to court to block any attempts to rescind or reduce the monument designations.
The two Utah monuments encompass more than 3.2 million acres – an area larger than Connecticut – and were created by Democratic administrations under a century-old law that allows presidents to protect sites considered historic, geographically or culturally important.
Bears Ears, designated for federal protection by former President Barack Obama, totals 1.3 million acres in southeastern Utah on land that is sacred to Native Americans and home to tens of thousands of archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.
Grand Staircase-Escalante, in southern Utah, includes nearly 1.9 million acres in a sweeping vista larger than the state of Delaware. Republicans have howled over the monument designation since its creation in 1996 by former President Bill Clinton.
Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it was “a disgrace” that Trump was moving to undo Bears Ears, which she described as “the nation’s first national monument created to honor Native American cultural heritage.”
Suh called it “a travesty” that Trump was “trying to unravel a century’s worth of conservation history – all behind closed doors,” adding: “The American people want these special places protected.”
The Republican-led San Juan County, Utah commission welcomed Trump’s action on Bears Ears. The three-member panel objected to the monument designation, saying it was too large and could hurt residents’ ability to earn a living from livestock grazing.
They contend there are other ways to protect the area and said the monument declaration attracts more visitors who could potentially damage the ruins and rock art.
Davis Filfred, a Navajo Nation lawmaker who supports the monument designation, called Trump’s action unfair.
Tribal groups have vowed to sue over any reduction to Bears Ears, but Filfred said Trump “has been sued so many times already I don’t know if that means anything to him.”
Associated Press writers Michelle Price in Salt Lake City and Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Ariz., contributed to this report.