SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday will get a bird’s-eye view of one of 27 national monuments he’s been ordered to review as he flies over 1.3 million acres of southern Utah’s red rock plateaus, cliffs and canyons graced with sagebrush, juniper trees and ancient cliff dwellings in one of America’s newest and most hotly contested monuments.
His tour guide aboard the helicopter will be Gov. Gary Herbert, one of several prominent Republican leaders in the state who oppose the Bears Ears National Monument. Herbert, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and the rest of the all-GOP Congressional delegation consider the monument creation by former President Barack Obama an unnecessary layer of federal control that will hurt local economies by closing the area to new energy development and isn’t the best way to protect the lands.
During the first day of a four-day trip to Utah to see two monuments, Zinke was serenaded in Salt Lake City by about 500 protesters who chanted, “Save our monuments, stand with Bears Ears.” They represented tribal leaders and conservationists on the other side of the debate who are imploring Zinke to leave Bears Ears alone to preserve lands considered sacred to the tribes.
After holding a closed-door meeting with a coalition of tribal leaders who pushed for the monument, Zinke spoke on Sunday of his admiration for President Theodore Roosevelt, who created the law that gives presidents the power to create monuments.
Zinke, a Montana Republican, said that “it is undisputed the monuments have been an effective tool to save, preserve our greatest cultural treasures.”
He insisted there is no predetermined outcome of his review, saying he may not recommend the monuments be made smaller or rescinded, and he might even recommend an addition. Zinke has been tasked with making a recommendation on the monument by June 10, about 2½ months before a final report about on all the monuments.
“I’m coming in this thing as a Montanan, a former congressman and now the secretary of the Interior without any predispositions of outcome,” Zinke said at a news conference Sunday evening in Salt Lake City. “I want to make sure that the public has a voice, that the elected officials have a voice.”
The two monuments he’s reviewing in Utah are quite large. Created in 1996, Grand Staircase-Escalante is 1.9 million acres (7,700 square kilometers), about the size of Delaware. Bears Ears is a bit smaller at 1.3 million acres (5,300 square kilometers).
Hatch, who appeared with Zinke at the Sunday news conference, said he is grateful the Interior secretary was making the visit.
“He understands that there are two sides. Maybe more than two sides,” Hatch said.
Hatch led the campaign by Utah Republican to get President Donald Trump to take a second look a monument designated by President Barack Obama near the end of his term.
The monument review is rooted in the belief of Trump and other critics that a law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt allowing presidents to declare monuments has been improperly used to protect wide expanses of lands instead of places with particular historical or archaeological value.
Conservation groups contend that the monument review puts in limbo protections on large swaths of land that are home to ancient cliff dwellings, towering Sequoias, deep canyons and ocean habitats where seals, whales and sea turtles roam.
Environmental groups have vowed to file lawsuits if Trump attempts to rescind monuments, which would be unprecedented.
Congress might weigh in as well. Numerous bills on the issue were introduced in the previous session, including measures to prevent the president from establishing or expanding monuments in particular states and to require the consent of Congress or state legislatures.
Zinke and Herbert are scheduled to hold a news conference Monday afternoon before hiking up to the House on Fire, one of dozens of intact ancient ruins within the monument.
On Tuesday, he plans to tour the area by while riding a horse, mentioning his horseback commute through the streets of Washington, D.C., on his first day on the job in March.
“I think, sometimes, the best way to see things is slow and easy with a horse,” Zinke said.