ST. GEORGE — Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke wants to downsize four monuments in the West including two Utah monuments — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
A 19-page memo, sent to the White House last month and later leaked to the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and several other national media outlets, recommends reducing four national monuments and modifying six others.
Zinke’s plan could also potentially open hundreds of thousands of acres of land and restore activities now prohibited, including grazing, logging and mining.
Along with the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, Zinke’s plan would also scale back Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou.
The two Utah monuments encompass more than 3.6 million acres — an area larger than Connecticut — and were created by previous Democratic administrations under the Antiquities Act. More than a century-old, the act gives presidents the power to protect areas with historic, geographic or cultural significance.
Bears Ears, designated for federal protection by former President Barack Obama, totals 1.3 million-acres in southeastern Utah. The monument is home to tens of thousands of archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings, and is considered sacred to Native Americans.
Grand Staircase-Escalante, in Southern Utah, encompasses 1.9 million acres in a sweeping vista larger than the state of Delaware. Republicans have begrudged the monument since its inception in 1996 under then-President Bill Clinton. According to the memo, the area incorporated within the Staircase is estimated to contain several billion tons of coal and large oil deposits that many conservative leaders have argued prevent economic growth and stability in rural areas.
By sealing off more than 3 million acres in solidly Republican Utah, Obama and Clinton hurt local economies in rural areas that depend on logging and ranching, said Matt Anderson of the conservative Sutherland Institute.
“It begs the question: Are these expansions more about ulterior motives like climate change, presidential legacies, corporate interests like outdoor recreation companies, or are they about antiquities?” Anderson asked.
President Donald Trump tasked Zinke with reviewing 27 national monuments for possible elimination or reduction in an executive order he signed last April, at the time calling the efforts by previous administrations “a massive federal land grab.”
“It’s gotten worse and worse and worse, and now we’re going to free it up, which is what should have happened in the first place. This should never have happened,” Trump said when ordering the review in April.
The review process began in May with Zinke touring Bears Ears on foot, horseback and helicopter followed by a day trip to the Grand Staircase-Escalante. The secretary also met with the governor and elected leaders from the Utah Legislature county commissions.
The memo is the final report from that review process and expands the details of an interim report given to the president in June recommending the monument be scaled back. The secretary noted then the contentious nature of the site’s designation and called on Congress to approve a land-management bill for Bears Ears and other federal lands. He restated the same in his memo.
Zinke’s recommendations for the two Utah monuments largely echo some of the same opinions of local and state leaders who argue the designation of a monument negates some of the very protections sought for under that status.
“The recommendations by Secretary Zinke are exactly the same things I’ve been saying for a long time,” Utah Rep. Mike Noel said. “This isn’t about wanting to destroy our public lands like many of these environmental groups would like people to believe. This is about managing the lands responsibly and, the fact is, there are already layers of protection in place, many, many layers of protection, that offer just as much or more protection than the monument designation.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert issued a similar statement provided earlier by the White House stating he did not want to speak to a “leaked document.”
Likewise, Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock refused to comment on the memo and said he supported any recommendations brought forward by the Interior Secretary.
“Secretary Zinke is a good man,” Pollock said. “He is a former Navy SEAL and he served our country well and deserves our respect, and I am not going to comment on a leaked document to the media. It should never have been leaked.”
Environmental groups jumped on the recommendations detailed in the document, promising to block any move by the Trump administration to pare down the Western monuments.
“(The recommendations) represent an unprecedented assault on our parks and public lands,” Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, said.
“This callous proposal will needlessly punish local, predominantly rural communities that depend on parks and public lands for outdoor recreation, sustainable jobs and economic growth,” Williams said, vowing to challenge in court any actions by the Trump administration to reduce the size of national monuments.
It was not clear from the memo how much energy development would be allowed on the sites recommended for changes, but Zinke said in the report that “traditional uses of the land such as grazing, timber production, mining, fishing, hunting, recreation and other cultural uses are unnecessarily restricted.”
Those restrictions especially harm rural communities in Western states that have traditionally benefited from grazing, mining and logging, said Zinke, a former Montana congressman.
“Zinke claims to follow Teddy Roosevelt, but he’s engineering the largest rollback of public land protection in American history,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, another environmental group.
The 27 monuments ordered to be reviewed were designated by four presidents over the past two decades.
No president has tried to eliminate a monument, but boundaries have been trimmed or redrawn 18 times, according to the National Park Service.
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly, Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this story.
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