SALT LAKE CITY — The White House announced Friday that President Donald Trump will visit Utah in December for his official announcement on boundary reductions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
"I am not going to get ahead of the president's announcement on the specifics, but I can tell you he will be going to Utah in the first part of early December," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a televised news briefing.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, first broke the news of Trump's intent to reduce monument boundaries in his home state after taking a call from the president about the matter.
Hatch was attending a women’s tech leadership awards event in Salt Lake City when he took the call from Trump late Friday morning.
Later, his office sent out a prepared statement.
“I was incredibly grateful the president called this morning to let us know that he is approving Secretary (Ryan) Zinke’s recommendation on Bears Ears," Hatch said.
"We believe in the importance of protecting these sacred antiquities, but Secretary Zinke and the Trump administration rolled up their sleeves to dig in, talk to locals, talk to local tribes and find a better way to do it. We’ll continue to work closely with them moving forward to ensure Utahns have a voice,” he said.
Hatch's office said Trump also agreed to follow the recommendations Zinke made on Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Neither set of recommendations have been officially released with any detail.
Members of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition of Native American tribes that sought the designation in San Juan County said it was "appalling" to have the announcement come just as they were meeting with federal officers to hash out a management plan for the monument.
“The proposed reduction in size would leave thousands of sites more vulnerable to vandalism, compromise the integrity of the landscape as a whole and disrespect the unified voices of tribal nations that have consistently called for Bears Ears to be protected,” said co-chair Carleton Bowekaty, in a statement.
The Native American advocacy group Utah Dine Bikeyah also called the looming reduction a sign of great disrespect.
“Bears Ears holds our prayers, medicine and sacred grounds. Bears Ears National Monument honors Native Americans and provides a path for healing. President Trump should leave it alone and respect our people," said Jonah Yellowman, board member and spiritual adviser.
Trump engaged in a flurry of phone calls with multiple members of Utah's all-Republican congressional delegation Friday, speaking with Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Rob Bishop as the latter visited hurricane-stricken regions of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
"It was surprising and very pleasant that he would reach out to a whole lot of people about this particular decision. He did not tell me a timeline or specifics as far as the designation or what the parameters would be," Bishop said from Puerto Rico.
Bishop did say, however, that the president said he would be "satisfied" with the changes.
"We also did talk about the need for legislation for Bears Ears to make sure that Native Americans in Utah will have the ability to manage those lands — that has to be done legislatively. Also, I want to guarantee what kind of activities will be guaranteed in that area," he said.
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said he was excited and hopeful over the news, adding that he had heard the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument might be reduced to three smaller areas specifically designed to protect cultural resources.
"The administration is trying to do exactly what the Antiquities Act was set up to do — create small areas that need protection," Adams said.
Bishop confirmed that may be an option.
"There is a good possibility of that. I don't know the specifics, the real details. … Putting those (three areas) together into a Bears Ears monument would make sense."
Trump also had a telephone call with Gov. Gary Herbert, as the Utah governor was preparing to board a return flight from a Middle East trade mission.
"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," Herbert said in a prepared statement.
"Our recommendations have been, first, that any new boundaries protect the extraordinary antiquities within these areas. Second, 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," he said.
Environmental groups immediately decried the news.
“Despite demands from millions of Americans, Native American tribes, elected officials across the nation, scientists and legal scholars, President Trump continues to move down a path that puts the future of America’s treasured lands at risk," said Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society. "Any efforts to take away protections for America’s lands and waters will be met by deep opposition and with the law on our side."
Suzanne Catlett, president of the Escalante & Boulder Chamber of Commerce, condemned the news.
"President Trump and Ryan Zinke's attack on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is an attack on southern Utah's entrepreneurs and the thousands of jobs that depend on the monument," she said.
Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said a lawsuit is being drafted and is ready to file when Trump takes official action.
"If President Trump illegally attacks Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, this will long be viewed as one of the most shortsighted and ill-conceived acts committed by a modern president," Groene said. 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.”
The controversial monuments in Utah were among a handful across the nation that Zinke, in a leaked report, said need boundary revisions.
The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument of 1.9 million acres was abruptly designated in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton to the dismay of Utah's elected leaders.
Former President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears in December last year over the objections of Utah's congressional delegation, its governor and local county commissions.
Since then, Utah's top political leaders have been urging Trump to rescind or drastically reduce the monuments.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said the boundary revisions would be good for Utah.
"I have worked closely with Secretary Zinke throughout the review process, and I am very confident this will be a win-win for our state,” Stewart said.
Trump ordered a national monument review earlier this year via an executive order, prompting Zinke to visit Utah in May.
The San Juan County Commission said it was "thrilled" Trump and his administration is listening to the concerns of local residents.
"As a commission, we are thrilled that the years of meetings, countless hours of discussion and tirelessly dedicated advocacy has resulted in our local voices being heard by President Trump and Secretary Zinke," the statement read. "We take heart in our shared belief that the people of San Juan will continue to take special care of these magnificent lands. This is our home. No one wants to see it protected and secure for future generations more than we do."
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