BLANDING, Utah – U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says he values national monuments. But as he tours America’s newest and most hotly contested one, he questions whether the designation by the federal government was the right way to preserve sacred tribal lands.
Zinke said Monday at a news conference that Washington sometimes does things “that seem to be heavy-handed or without coordination.”
“A lot of the anger that is out there in our country is that local communities and state just don’t feel like they’ve had a voice,” Zinke, a Montana Republican, said.
Zinke’s four-day tour of Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.3-million acre (5,300 square kilometers) area, was part of a review ordered by President Donald Trump to determine if 27 monuments were properly established.
On Tuesday, Zinke plans to visit a ranch and conservation area within Utah’s new national monument as he re-evaluates government protections on the vast expanse of tribal lands, canyons and plateaus.
Some Native Americans said they worry that as Zinke prepares to report back to the president, the voice he’s hearing most belong to Utah elected officials.
Bears Ears was established by President Barack Obama near the end of his term after a coalition of tribes spent years urging that the area be made a national monument.
Tara Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation who lives south of the nearby town of Bluff, said she’s glad Zinke’s viewing the spectacular landscape within Bears Ears. But Benally and other supporters of the monument want him to spend more time with tribal leaders than his hour-long meeting he held Sunday.
Tuesday’s visit to a multiple-use site on the northern part of Bears Ears National Monument follows tours Monday by helicopter and on foot, where Zinke was accompanied a group of Republican officials who called the monument’s declaration an abuse of power.
Gov. Gary Herbert and other officials accompanied Zinke in the helicopter tour over Bears Ears and later on short afternoon hike to a lookout post above the ancient ruins, where security and staff kept media at a distance.
Before the hike, Zinke shook hands and chatted briefly with Bears Ears supporters who waited for him at the trailhead. They believe the monument adds vital protections to tribal lands where members perform ceremonies, collect herbs and wood for medicinal and spiritual purposes, and do healing rituals.
Just outside the monument in the town of Blanding, with a population of 3,400 people, two large banners read, “#RescindBearsEars,” reflecting the popular sentiment among residents.
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 areas across the country that are home to ancient cliff dwellings, towering Sequoias, deep canyons and ocean habitats where seals, whales and sea turtles roam.
Zinke 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.
On Sunday, he held a closed-door meeting with a coalition of tribal leaders who pushed for the monument then spoke of his admiration for Roosevelt.
Davis Filfred of the Navajo Nation said Monday that the one-hour meeting wasn’t enough time for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to make their points to Zinke. Filfred, who was in the meeting, said it seems Zinke is listening more to opponents of the monument than people who want it preserved.
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 smaller at 1.3 million acres.
Zinke has been tasked with making a recommendation on the Bears Ears monument by June 10, about 2½ months before a final report about all the monuments.
Environmental groups have vowed to file lawsuits if Trump attempts to rescind monuments — a move that would be unprecedented.
He said his upcoming decision is not just about how the local tribes, county officials or the governor feel about the monument, but it’s also about how the entire country feels about it because it’s America’s public land.
“President Trump, I’m going to tell you, is a great boss. The reason why I think he felt so strongly about this is he feels like sometimes Washington makes these rules and we don’t have a voice,” Zinke said. “He put this in motion to make sure that local communities count. States count. America counts.”