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Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted an initial report to the White House about the national monument in Utah, which some GOP officials have characterized as an Obama-era land grab.
WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended in a report submitted to President Trump on Saturday that the roughly 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, located in southeast Utah, should be downsized.
Zinke also called for Congress to designate recreation or conservation areas within the current boundaries of the monument and to authorize tribal co-management of certain cultural areas. The interim report was submitted in response to an executive order Trump issued in April.
The president’s order directed the interior secretary to review some of the larger national monument designations that presidents have made during the past two decades.
Conservation groups and a coalition of Native American tribes sharply criticized Zinke’s report. But it drew praise from Utah Republicans who have characterized the Bears Ears designation as an example of federal overreach.
The monument includes canyons, red rock formations and pinyon-juniper forests, along with sites and artifacts that are culturally significant to Native Americans.
Zinke spent time in recent weeks touring the monument, by foot, helicopter and on horseback.
In a statement released Monday he said there was no doubt the landscape is “drop-dead gorgeous country and that it merits some degree of protection.”
“But designating a monument that—including state land—encompasses almost 1.5 million-acres where multiple-use management is hindered or prohibited is not the best use of the land and is not in accordance with the intention of the Antiquities Act,” he added.
Language in the act says monument designations should be “confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
Zinke noted that Bears Ears is about four times larger than the roughly 340,000-acre Canyonlands National Park—the largest national park in Utah.
While the secretary suggested that the monument should be “right-sized,” his report did not include a specific figure for what amount of acreage he viewed as appropriate.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition—a partnership of the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni governments—described the prospect of breaking up the monument as a "radical idea" that would be a "slap in the face to the members of our Tribes and an affront to Indian people all across the country."
"The Bears Ears region is not a series of isolated objects, but the object itself, a connected, living landscape, where the place, not a collection of items, must be protected," the group added in a statement. "You cannot reduce the size without harming the whole.
Conservation groups were also swift in their rejection of Zinke's report. And some threatened legal action.
“This is an undeniable attack on our national monuments and America’s public lands,” Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement.
According to the center, Zinke spent just 90 minutes with advocates for the Bears Ears National Monument during a four-day trip to Utah.
Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney in the Rocky Mountains region for the group Earthjustice, said that unilaterally shrinking the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument would "violate both the Antiquities Act and the separation of powers doctrine.”
“If President Trump follows Secretary Zinke’s recommendation to shrink the boundaries of these cherished lands, we will see him in court,” she added.
It’s unclear from a legal perspective whether Trump has the authority to rescind, or drastically cut the size of an existing national monument. No past president has ever tried to do so.
U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, called the Interior secretary’s report “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,” he added, “I am even more grateful for the thoughtful and inclusive process that led us to this point.”
Hatch has been involved in efforts pushing back against federal land policies in the West that date back decades.
When Trump signed the order calling for the national monument review he recognized the senator. “He would call me and call me and say, you got to do this. Is that right, Orrin?” the president said.
“That's right,” Hatch replied.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican who opposed the Bears Ears designation, on Monday called Zinke’s recommendations “an important first step toward re-establishing sound land management practices for one of the most special areas in the world.”
The report marks an initial step in the review process and does not guarantee that the boundaries of Bears Ears will be changed.
Zinke still needs to issue a final report as part of the overall review of national monuments Trump has ordered. The broader review centers on 27 monuments that were designated or expanded since 1996.
Some of the monuments covered by the full review include Grand Staircase-Escalante, which is also in Utah, Giant Sequoia in California and Craters of the Moon in Idaho. Five of the designations under review are marine monuments, which encompass ocean waters.
Trump’s executive order called for an interim report within 45 days delving into issues related to Bears Ears. The final report, which is expected to look at other national monuments covered by the order, is due in late August.
The Interior Department’s formal public comment period for the national monument review extends to July 10.
As of Sunday, 155,314 comments had been submitted, according to figures on the federal website regulations.gov. But that figure includes comments that were counted in batches. A coalition of conservation groups and others said in late May that more than 685,000 comments in support of Bears Ears had been collected.
This post has been updated with a statement from the The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and to clarify that some public comments on Bears Ears were delivered to the Interior Department in batches.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.