SALT LAKE CITY — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recommendation to downsize the new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah was applauded by the state’s top Republican leaders but marked a stinging setback for a coalition of Western tribes that pushed for protection of lands they consider sacred.
Zinke, a former Republican congressman from Montana, said Monday he’s committed to make sure Native American culture is preserved and vowed to push for Congress to approve legislation granting tribes legal authority to “co-manage” some of the Bears Ears site.
The scenic swath of southern Utah with red rock plateaus, cliffs and canyons is on land considered sacred to a coalition of tribes and is home to an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites. But President Donald Trump and other Republicans are critical of former President Barack Obama’s late-term creation of the 1.3 million acre Bears Ears National Monument. They say it’s an unnecessary layer of federal control that hurts local economies by closing the area to new energy development. They also say it isn’t the best way to protect the land.
Zinke said he discussed the idea with the tribes and that they came away happy with the plan. “I have enormous respect for tribes,” Zinke said. “This is working hand-to-hand with the tribes as I said I would do.”
Several tribal leaders balked at that characterization, saying they weren’t briefed on the plan and consider the idea to be an attempt to temper their criticism. They joined environmental groups in vowing to file lawsuits if Trump accepts the recommendation and shrinks the monument.
“This was really just a cynical effort to distract Indian country from the devastating blow of reducing the size of the monument,” Natalie Landreth, an attorney at the Native American Rights Fund. “Bears Ears is not for sale. It’s not up for trade.”
Ethel Branch, Navajo Nation attorney general, said the lands within Bears Ears are essentially holy lands that hold critical plants, minerals and powers that members of many tribes rely on to heal and strengthen themselves.
“Protection of these lands are non-negotiable,” Branch said.
Trump signed an executive order in April directing Zinke to review the designation of 27 national monuments on federal lands, calling the protection efforts “a massive federal land grab” by previous administrations.
Zinke made the Bears Ears recommendation as part of an interim report to Trump. He said he will issue a final report in late August, when he is due to make recommendations on Bears Ears and 21 other national monuments on federal land in 11 states, including Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, Giant Sequoia in California, Nevada’s Basin and Range and Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine.
The review also targets five marine monuments in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Zinke toured Bears Ears last month on foot, horseback and helicopter and met with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and other state leaders who opposed Obama’s December designation of Bears Ears monument.
“There is no doubt that it is drop-dead gorgeous country and that it merits some degree of protection, but designating a monument … where multiple-use management is hindered or prohibited is not the best use of the land,” Zinke said.
Zinke did not specify how much of the 1.3 million acres should be trimmed.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called Zinke’s announcement “an unquestionable victory for Utah.”
Noting the contentious nature of the monument designation, Zinke called on Congress to approve a land-management bill for Bears Ears and other federal lands. The Republican-controlled Congress has failed to approve a significant public lands bill in recent years, but Zinke said that was because of veto threats by Obama.
Utah rancher Zeb Dalton was among monument critics who wanted Zinke to recommend rescinding the entire monument. He and other cattle ranchers fear that their grazing rights will be impacted even though the government had said the monument designation will allow grazing to continue.
Dalton said he’ll await the new boundaries to find out how much of his land is included.
“Everybody says it needs to be protected; it’s already protected,” said Dalton, while adding. “I guess reducing the size is better than nothing.”