KANAB — Utah's all-GOP delegation and state leaders bid farewell to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Friday, the third day of her whirlwind tour of two controversial national monument designations, with a call for a collaborative — not unilateral — decision.
"We appreciate Secretary Haaland's visit and thank her and her team for taking time to meet with us and with state, local and tribal leaders as part of the ongoing review of these monuments," Utah political officials said in a joint statement. "During these discussions, we reiterated our desire to find a permanent legislative solution, which we believe is the only path to finally resolving the longstanding dispute over the monuments' boundaries and management."
U.S. Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney; Reps. Chris Stewart, John Curtis, Burgess Owens and Blake Moore; as well as state officials Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Attorney General Sean Reyes, Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson signed the statement thanking Haaland after her visit to discuss the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
The statement came as Haaland wrapped up her tour with a meeting in Kanab with local elected officials, ranchers, conservation organizations, local business owners and indigenous leaders.
Lee, Owens and Stewart — while absent from Thursday's tour of Bears Ears with Haaland, Cox, Romney and Moore — attended Friday's meeting in Kanab with Haaland.
Utah's delegation has been urging Haaland and President Joe Biden's administration to not follow the same political path of their predecessors and use presidential powers under the Antiquities Act and designate the monuments with a stroke of the pen. Instead, Utah's delegation wants to end what they've called a political game of "ping-pong" of presidents expanding and shrinking monuments every four or eight years depending on which party is in power.
Today I joined @SecDebHaaland, @SenMikeLee, and @RepChrisStewart to discuss the need for a collaborative, permanent solution to the 25+ year dispute over the boundaries and management of our state's monuments. Utah deserves a seat at the table. pic.twitter.com/K689OUupcE— Rep. Burgess Owens (@RepBurgessOwens) April 9, 2021
They argue the only way to end the political games is to find a long-term solution for the monument designations by passage of legislation.
Utah leaders' statement issued Friday came with a warning — that if Biden uses his pen instead of working with Congress, it will jeopardize a long-term solution.
"If the administration decides to act unilaterally, a legislative solution that provides certainty will be nearly impossible to achieve," the statement said. "And without protections against the Antiquities Act, Utah is left vulnerable to the whim of future presidents. We continue to urge the administration to work with us to craft a collaborative, consensus plan that reflects the input of the people most directly impacted and ends the political back-and-forth that our communities have been subjected to for more than 25 years."
Meanwhile, Biden's administration is under pressure to not only restore but expand the Bears Ears designation that Trump shrunk in 2017. Navajo Nation leaders this week called on Haaland, who is the country's first Native American to serve in a cabinet position, to expand it from 1.35 million acres designated under former President Barack Obama to an even bigger 1.9 million acres.
Antiquities Act a 'blunt instrument'
It's a blunt instrument and needs to be refined, and I don't think it's the right tool to use to accomplish the idea of protection that people are looking for.
–Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding
Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, a state lawmaker who has been a vocal opponent of the designations, was also present in Friday's meeting. Lyman credited Haaland for doing "a really good job of listening. I honestly feel like we spoke to her and like she heard us."
"I didn't sense any real agenda from her, but I just know there's an agenda from the people that are advising her," Lyman said, pointing to Biden's administration.
Though Lyman said he's hopeful for a different outcome, he said he also wouldn't be surprised if Biden went with the "default," which would be to redesignate the areas with a stroke of his pen and then leave it up to Congress to later work through a legislative solution, which Lyman hopes would be a clarification of the Antiquities Act and what presidents would or would have the power to do regarding monument designations.
"It's a blunt instrument and needs to be refined, and I don't think it's the right tool to use to accomplish the idea of protection that people are looking for," Lyman said he told Haaland about the Antiquities Act.
On the call to end the political "ping-ponging," Lyman said he's concerned talks of a compromise could go too far and permanently jeopardize public land access in his district, which encompasses both Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase areas.
"I would rather be a political ping-pong ball than to settle on giving away all of our rights to produce on the land as a way to get out of that back-and-forth," Lyman said. "We don't want this to be permanently taken away and somehow give the permission that we're OK with that."
Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock said the Friday meeting with Haaland was cordial and she listened to the concerns of the delegation, local elected leaders and ranchers, taking notes during the 50-minute exchange in Kanab.
"We will see though. I did tell her that it is going to be very easy for a Republican president, and we will get one — if she goes back to the Clinton model, which was a disaster — and make changes like the compromise made in 2017."
He said he emphasized to her that the alterations made by President Donald Trump took out 1 million acres of Bureau of Land Management rangelands.
"Those Western rangelands are just like any other rangelands that you will find in the West on BLM land. That is what BLM was created under the Taylor Grazing Act to manage the range and make it healthy and to protect it from noxious weeds, flooding and juniper pinyon encroachment," Pollock said.
The BLM, he told her, was created for multiple use and sustained yield, not to be subject to arbitrary and vast monument designations by a sitting president.
"But radical special interest groups only want one thing: to lock it up," Pollock said, adding that the drive to create monuments is often a well-heeled path backed by big influence.
Before any decision is reached by the Biden administration, he said he and others stressed that additional research needs to be done.
"I extended an invitation to her and stressed how important it is that she not make this decision arbitrarily, that she come out on the land and we will give her a complimentary tour to come see this land. The magnitude of the land deserves time on the ground. We are hopeful she will come back and do an actual tour."
Pushes for restoration of original boundaries
But multiple conservation and environmental organizations are urging restoration of the Grand Staircase-Escalante to its original boundaries carved out in 1996.
They cite a variety of urgent reasons, such as protecting fragile ecosystems, paleontological resources, ancient artifacts and iconic geographic features.
"Other crucial landscapes in need of a return to full safeguarding include the Blues Overlook, delicate toadstools across the southern rim of the monument, the rugged Circle Cliffs, Colt Mesa, Peekaboo Slot Canyon and Smokey Mountain Road. It is time to restore the monument's protections for these vulnerable sites," according to a statement released by the Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners.
A statement by the Nature Conservancy also urged that Grand Staircase be returned to its original boundaries, but added a caveat.
"Reinstating the original boundaries should also be accompanied by significant funding to ensure the proper management and stewardship of these lands," the organization said.
Environmental groups and other proponents include pleas that both the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase return to the lines drawn when they were originally created, but Pollock said it is wrong to conflate the two monuments into one issue.
"This monument is so vastly different from Bears Ears, it should not even be talked about at the same time," he said. "In all fairness we deserve that. It needs to be discussed separately and apart from Bears Ears, no matter what they do."
Critics of the Trump decision in 2017 said it should be paramount that the Biden administration act to conserve and protect public lands, which are at risk — or even being ruined — by the extractive industries and ranching.
"By working directly with tribes and local communities, we can restore the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, including sacred tribal ancestral lands, critical wildlife habitat, priceless cultural treasures," said Collin O'Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.
"Secretary Haaland's conversations are a critical first step toward righting the grievous cultural, ecological and legal wrongs of shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante."
Stewart in an interview with the Deseret News later Friday said he was left more hopeful after Haaland's visit than he'd expected.
"If you would have asked me six weeks ago if I thought we'd be able to persuade the administration to consider our concerns, I was quite pessimistic," Stewart said. "But after working with (her staff) ... I'm more optimistic than I was before."
Time will tell, Stewart acknowledged, what Biden will choose to do.
"I said to (Haaland), I said, 'Look, the president has promised that he would be bipartisan. He promised he would work for all of us," Stewart said. "You can work with a delegation that is entirely Republican, we will work closely with you on this, and you can create a legacy. Or you can do this by executive action and you'll get what you want, and we'll be frustrated, and when a Republican is elected we'll go ask them to reduce the size again."
Owens in a statement to the Deseret News said Utah's federal delegation is "united on this issue."
"Decisions regarding public land belong in Congress, where elected representatives have an opportunity to debate on behalf of their constituents," Owens said. "Long-term and collaborative legislation is the only way to end this political back-and-forth."
Lee, in a video recorded after the meeting with Haaland in Kanab, said he heard "a number of concerns" from Utahns who live near the national monuments, including ranchers "who have found it nearly impossible just to raise their livestock" and from recreation enthusiasts and business owners "who have in one way or another fallen victim to the fact that when somebody designates a national monument from 2,000 miles away, they don't necessary take into account all of the details, and that's a concern."
Lee added: "Look, there's a way to manage federal land that respects the local population and also preserves the appropriate environmental interests, the historical and archeological interests. ... We can do this but there's got to be a better way — there is a better way, and it's through legislation rather than through executive order."
Pollock feels that this shotgun approach by proponents seeking to restore the original boundaries — coupled with Biden's stated conservation goals — does not fare well for his desires, that of the governor, delegation or other elected leaders.
Biden has a goal of conserving an additional 30% of the nation's public lands and public waters by 2030. Acting to reverse Trump's reduction of the two monuments in Utah would fit right in, Pollock added.
"I think it is a foregone conclusion because of the Biden administration and his track record as president and what he is doing. He is into some pretty radical executive orders."
Haaland on Thursday stressed her job is only "to listen, to learn" and report back to Biden.
"It'll be up to the president on what he wants to do," she said when asked if she plans to increase the boundaries of the monuments.
What was clear to her, however, is, "We all want pretty much the same thing," she said.
"We want to protect land. We want to make sure it's there for generations to come."