SALT LAKE CITY — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Monday the Bears Ears National Monument was designated outside the scope of the Antiquities Act and needs it boundaries "right sized" to protect the "highest density" of cultural artifacts, with other areas set aside for conservation and recreation.
He also stressed in a briefing with reporters that Native American tribes be granted co-management authority for those cultural sites by an act of Congress, which should carve out national recreation areas and conservation areas to protect landscapes.
His preliminary recommendations, outlined in a memorandum to President Donald Trump, will be followed by a final report due by July 10. In the interim, the public comment period on the Bears Ears designation in southern Utah was extended until that date to coincide with input on 26 other monument designations up for review.
Comments may be submitted on regulations.gov or by traditional mail. If an individual submitted a comment on Bears Ears during the initial comment period, they do not need to resubmit.
Utah leaders approve
Zinke's preliminary recommendations on the designation were uniformly praised by Utah's top leaders and excoriated by environmental organizations and tribal advocacy groups.
"This is positive news for the state of Utah and local communities affected by the Bears Ears Monument designation," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
"Anyone with honest intentions recognizes that local input should matter when the federal executive makes a decision of this magnitude," he said.
The three members of the San Juan County Commission issued a statement Monday afternoon in reaction to the preliminary recommendations, praising Zinke for listening to "all sides" on the issue.
“This monument designation was not about protection and preservation, the people of San Juan County have done that as stewards of the land. This monument designation was about control. By shrinking the monument, President Trump and Secretary Zinke are empowering the local people with the ability to build a diverse economy and support their families," the statement said.
Zinke said his office has been talking to Native American tribes and is working with them for input on co-management language in a bill he said will be critical not only to the Bears Ears Monument but other monuments up for review.
He added there is universal support for that legislative path on co-management and new conservation areas in the region, including Utah's congressional delegation, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, the tribal coalition and The Nature Conservancy, which owns the Dugout Ranch in the Indian Creek area of Bears Ears.
"This is a first," Zinke said, referencing co-management for tribes. "We have not had this before. … They're pretty happy and willing to work with us."
The coalition did not release a statement, but Utah Dine Bikeyah — a Native American advocacy organization at the heart of the monument push — slammed the preliminary recommendations.
"We are deeply upset at Secretary Zinke’s announcement today," said a statement released by the Salt Lake City organization. "The secretary failed to take the time to listen to the very people who know best what is at stake at Bears Ears and ignored overwhelming support in Utah for the monument. If the administration proceeds in attempting to shrink the monument, we could lose funding potential, proactive management and law enforcement resources for the land that would no longer be included in the monument."
Zinke agreed the area contains cultural artifacts that should be protected under the Antiquities Act, but he noted the 1.35 million acres set aside by former President Barack Obama didn't fit with the law's language regarding monument designations.
"Specifically, the review shows that rather than designating an entire area encompassing almost 1.5 million acres as a national monument, it would have been more appropriate to identify and separate the areas that have signficant objects to be protected," the memorandum reads, "to meet the purposes of the (Antiquities Act), including the area reserved be limited to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects.
Zinke's recommendations are:
- Revision of the boundaries through appropriate authority, including the exercise of presidential authority under the act
- The president request congressional authority to enable tribal co-management of designated cultural areas within the monument boundaries
- Congress make more-appropriate conservation designations within the current monument boundaries, such as national recreation areas or national conservation areas
- Congress clarify the intent of the management practices of wilderness or wilderness study areas within the boundaries
The monument, Zinke noted, overlaps 11 wilderness study areas of 381,000 acres on Bureau of Land Management lands and the Dark Canyon Wilderness on Forest Service lands.
He said it is important for Congress to clarify its intent on wilderness or wilderness study areas within the monument because those designations actually could result in a higher level of protection than a monument would.
"Moreover, other lands within the (monument) are more appropriately set aside under another type of designation, such as a national recreation area," he said.
But Josh Ewing, executive director of conservation organization Friends of Cedar Mesa, said depending on congressional action is irresponsible.
"In my view that is a irresponsible tack to unprotect the area hoping someday Congress might do its job," he said. "It's kind of like postponing paying your mortgage hoping you win the lottery someday."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who caught the ear of Trump in jockeying for action on Bears Ears, said the preliminary recommendations are exactly the right thing to do for a state already saddled with too much federal control.
"This is an unquestionable victory for Utah. While I am encouraged to see Secretary Zinke recommend diminishing the size of the monument in line with the original intent of the Antiquities Act, as envisioned by President Teddy Roosevelt and the Congress of the early 1900s, I am even more grateful for the thoughtful and inclusive process that led us to this point," Hatch said.
"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. "
Zinke's recommendations come after a first-in-history look by the Interior Department at 27 monument designations greater than 100,000 acres, including Obama's latest — Bears Ears in Utah — and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument designated by then-President Bill Clinton in 1996.
The Bears Ears' fight
The Bears Ears' 45-day review was the result of an executive order issued by Trump on April 26 directing Zinke to determine if the southeast Utah monument designation in particular satisfied the provisions of the Antiquities Act.
Zinke was also asked to consider whether the designation:
- Impacts use and enjoyment of non-federal lands within or beyond monument boundaries
- Adequately addressed concerns of state, tribal and local governments, including economic development and financial conditions
- Contemplates the availability of federal resources to properly manage the monument
The review grew in part out of the state's longstanding resentment and animosity over monument designations its top leaders feel represent a federal overreach and restrict already struggling rural counties when it comes to land use.
For that reason, Utah leaders pleaded with the Obama administration to refrain from a monument designation and instead allow protections for antiquities to play out in some other fashion.
But on Dec. 28, 2016, the announcement Utah's GOP leaders feared for months came from Obama in the final days of his administration.
While not as large as the 1.9 million acres sought by a coalition of Native American tribes and environmental groups, the proclamation setting aside the monument in San Juan County drew sharp rebuke from Utah leaders.
"This decision ignores the will of the majority of Utahns. It disregards the desire of Native American groups who count these lands as their heritage to co-manage this culturally important area. It overlooks the unanimous opposition of Utah’s statewide elected officials and Utah’s entire congressional delegation," Gov. Gary Herbert said in a prepared statement at the time, adding that federal overreach often disregards the well-being of rural America.
On Monday, Zinke's recommendations brought praise from the governor.
"This interim report is an important first step toward re-establishing sound land management practices for one of the most special areas in the world," Herbert said. "Throughout this process Secretary Zinke has demonstrated the utmost respect for local and tribal input. I encourage the president to take this recommendation seriously, and I applaud the secretary for his balanced and responsible proposal.
Politics and racism?
The fight over the Bears Ears region transcends politics, swirling with accusations of racism, that somehow Native Americans on both sides of the debate can't think for themselves when it comes to the land's fate.
Hatch drew the ire of Native American monument supporters in May when he said they "may not understand," what land use restrictions might accompany the designation.
Supporters called for an apology and lashed out at the nation's most senior senator.
“It is offensive that some people think that Native Americans do not have a will of their own, or if they do take a position that their position is influenced by a non-native person," said Willie Grayeyes, board chairman of Utah Dine Bikeyah, one of the core groups behind the monument push.
"Native American people understand the special and sacred landscapes at Bears Ears National Monument better than anyone."
Critics, however, said the monument campaign for Bears Ears didn't spring from local Native American desires, but grew out of a slick, deep-pocketed effort funded by West Coast environmental organizations that want the land off-limits to multiple use such as off-roading, ranching and mining.
San Juan County's Rebecca Benally, a Navajo and member of the county commission, has been steadfastly opposed to the monument and said it's "insulting" that out-of-state tribes and special interests are politicizing Native American heritage to push a monument locals don't want.
She called the campaign a "cynical political stunt" that harmed local Native American interests.
But tribal supporters and conservation organizations said they were tired of waiting on Congress to act.
"If this area had been anywhere else besides southern Utah it would have been protected a long time ago," Ewing said.
The Wilderness Society, National Wildlife Federation, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Western Values Project were among those groups condemning Zinke's recommendations, with the Western Values Project denouncing it as "cowardly and misguided."
The group's executive director, Chris Saeger, said legal scholars have clearly voiced it would be illegal for Trump to reduce or revoke the monument's boundaries.
There have been other times in history, however, when U.S. presidents have altered a monument designation.
Among those that have happened are the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado that was reduced by 25 percent and President Harry S. Truman's shrinking by nearly half the Santa Rosa Island National Monument.
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