Interior Secretary Zinke, Utah delegation meet to discuss next steps on Bears Ears

By  @amyjoi16

Published: April 27, 2017 4:30 p.m., Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke met with members of Utah's congressional delegation and Gov. Gary Herbert to lay out the next steps in the review of monument status for the Bears Ears region in southeast Utah.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said the Thursday morning meeting went well.

"It was very good, very positive," he said. "For one thing, he (Zinke) understands the issues and the enormous impact it has had on my district, the 2nd Congressional District, among others. He described the president as being understanding and wanting to help, so I was quite encouraged."

Stewart said the group discussed both Bears Ears, at 1.35 million acres, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, at nearly 1.9 million acres.

"This is not just about national monuments. This is about families and the impacts this has had on rural communities, schools and families," Stewart said. "Every one of us, and I really mean it, I don't know of a single person who does not want to preserve these antiquities and doesn't want to preserve these incredibly beautiful vistas. The challenge is to do it in within the right scope."

The meeting came a day after President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing Zinke to conduct a review of monument designations of more than 100,000 acres dating back to 1996. In issuing the order, Trump said the abusive use of the presidential power needs to stop, citing 265 million acres that were set aside as monuments under his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

Stewart said Thursday's meeting focused on the process of designating monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act, the intent of the law and how it has been used over the years — particularly in presidential proclamations that envelop millions of acres of land or water.

With Grand Staircase-Escalante, established in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton, Stewart said the monument's designation went beyond an intent to preserve antiquities and instead aimed to keep vast coal reserves off-limits.

"There are very few antiquities in that 1.8 million acres, but what there is are meaningful coal reserves, and it is clean coal," he said.

At the very least, Stewart said, boundaries at Grand Staircase-Escalante need to be adjusted.

"We want to look at redefining the boundaries and making some of these resources available, while at the same time protecting habitat and some of these antiquities that are truly worthy of protection," he said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, praised Wednesday by Trump for his doggedness on the monument issue, hosted Thursday's meeting to discuss implementation of the review process.

"I’m grateful that the president listened and that he even took time after the signing ceremony to meet privately with me and the vice president to discuss next steps on Bears Ears," Hatch said.

Environmental groups, conservation organizations and Democrats are blasting the executive order, decrying it as the first step in a presidential assault on public lands that will leave landscapes vulnerable to oil and gas development, mining, logging and grazing.

Bears Ears National Monument, with the exception of school trust lands and some private property, is already managed by the federal government and occupies land mostly controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. Any rescission of its monument status altogether or a modification of its boundaries will not changes its status as federal public lands.

Obama's monument proclamation acknowledges existing uses such as grazing, hunting, fishing and access to water rights, and monument designations don't trump current mineral or oil and gas leases. BLM officials describe its oil and gas potential as "low to moderate," and a proposed uranium mine expansion lies outside its boundaries.

Critics, however, fear monument restrictions will erode access and required travel plans for motorized vehicles will jeopardize off-roading in the region.

Zinke has been thrust into the middle of the long, contentious fight over the region's destiny. He has said he will visit Utah and meet with a variety of people in his review of the Bears Ears designation, but a Native American tribal coalition that pushed for the new monument said they have heard nothing from the new interior secretary.

"Our letters to your office from each of our tribal nations, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, and the Bears Ears Commission requesting meetings from you have gone unanswered. It seems illogical that letters sent nearly 100 days ago have not been answered, yet there will be a review of Bears Ears within the next 45 days," said a letter sent by coalition leaders to Zinke on Wednesday.

"Please do not forget — our tribes are the original inhabitants of the West long before the United States was a nation, and we do not view Bears Ears National Monument as an abuse," the letter continued.

The letter invites Zinke to the next meeting of the Bears Ears Commission in mid-May.

Another group, the Stewards of San Juan County, is also hoping to get some ear-time with Zinke.

"This monument was designated in order to appease outside special interest groups, and the voices of life-long residents and local tribal members who have loved and cared for this land the most were blatantly ignored," their statement said. "Bears Ears National Monument was done to us, not with us, and we deserve to have our voices heard."

Zinke is expected to visit the region in May.