ST. GEORGE – The future of Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments was left unknown Thursday when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke sent recommendations for 27 national monuments under federal review to the White House but did not make the report public.
Zinke announced Thursday morning to the Associated Press he won’t seek to rescind any national monuments carved from the wilderness and oceans by past presidents. But he said he will press for some boundary changes.
Zinke did not directly answer whether any monuments would be newly opened to energy development, mining and other industries the U.S. president has championed.
The White House did not comment on the recommendations but confirmed it received them.
Utah lawmakers, environmentalists, ranchers and tribal governments had been watching the issue closely, expecting Zinke to propose changing the borders of the two national monuments in Utah that together total more than 3 million acres.
Zinke’s announcement comes as no surprise following an interim report he submitted to President Donald Trump in June recommending Bears Ears be reduced in size. 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.
Trump tasked Zinke with reviewing 27 national monuments for possible elimination or reduction last April in an executive order, calling the protection efforts by previous administrations “a massive federal land grab.”
The recommendations cap the unprecedented four-month review to look at whether the protected areas should be eliminated, downsized or otherwise altered.
Grand Staircase-Escalante, designated a monument by President Bill Clinton in 1996, and Bears Ears, designated by President Barack Obama late last year, were the bookends of that review. Trump and other Republicans have singled out Bears Ears, calling it an unnecessary layer of federal control that hurts local economies by closing the area to new energy development.
Zinke rejected an earlier plea by Utah GOP leadership to rescind the monument entirely, an unprecedented step sure to invite a legal challenge for years to come. Instead, Zinke said some of the sprawling 1.4 million-acre site should be designated for conservation or recreation, categories that are less restrictive than monuments.
Sen. Orrin Hatch issued a statement Thursday praising Zinke for the review process.
“While Utah’s national monuments are a prime example of Antiquities Act Abuse, President Trump and Secretary Zinke are working to correct those past abuses and focus on the original meaning and intent of the law,” Hatch said.
The Utah statesman has worked closely with the president, urging him even in the first days of his presidency to reduce or rescind Bears Ears and the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
Zinke toured Bears Ears in May on foot, horseback and helicopter and met with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and other state and county leaders. The same trip also took him to Grand Staircase-Escalante where he spent a day visiting the massive monument that encompasses more area than the state of Delaware.
Herbert issued a statement Thursday praising Zinke’s “thorough review” of how the Antiquities Act has been used. He also encouraged stakeholders to work with Congress in “good faith,” if the president opts to make changes to the monuments.
“It is my conviction that working together we can protect Utah’s iconic landscapes for us and future generations …,” Herbert said.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who met with Zinke during the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante tours, said he supported Zinke’s earlier recommendation concerning Bears Ears.
“This review process has finally given Utah a voice, a voice we didn’t have during the initial process when the monuments were designated,” Noel said.
While he would have liked to have seen Utah’s two controversial monuments rescinded, Noel said, he could live with a rollback of boundaries.
The Republican lawmaker called it a good compromise that would enable continued tourism while still allowing activities that locals have pursued for generations – logging, livestock grazing and oil and gas drilling.
“The eco-tourists basically say, ‘Throw out all the rubes and the locals and get rid of that mentality of grazing and utilizing these public lands for any kind of renewable resource such as timber harvesting and even some mineral production,’” Noel said. “That’s a very selfish attitude.”
Several environmental groups blasted the 120-day review process, launching a last-minute campaign that included a barrage of TV ads and news releases just days before Zinke was to release Thursday’s recommendations.
Conservationists and tribal leaders responded with alarm and distrust Thursday, demanding the full release of Zinke’s recommendations and vowing to challenge attempts to shrink any monuments.
Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, called Zinke’s review a pretext for “selling out our public lands and waters” to the oil industry and others.
Jacqueline Savitz, senior vice president of Oceana, which has been pushing for preservation of five marine monuments included in the review, said that simply saying “changes” are coming doesn’t reveal any real information.
“A change can be a small tweak or near annihilation,” Savitz said. “The public has a right to know.”
A tribal coalition that pushed for the creation of the 2,100-square-mile Bears Ears monument on sacred tribal land said it is prepared to launch a legal fight against even a slight reduction in its size.
Zinke struck back against the conservationists who had warned of impending mass sell-offs of public lands by the Trump administration.
“I’ve heard this narrative that somehow the land is going to be sold or transferred,” he said. “That narrative is patently false and shameful. The land was public before and it will be public after.”
Other monuments that might see changes include the Katahdin Woods and Waters, 136 square miles of forest of northern Maine; and Cascade Siskiyou, a 156-square-mile region where three mountain ranges converge in Oregon.
The marine monuments encompass more than 340,000 square miles and include four sites in the Pacific Ocean and an array of underwater canyons and mountains off New England.
The former Montana congressman said public access for uses such as hunting, fishing or grazing would be maintained or restored. He also spoke of protecting tribal interests.
“There’s an expectation we need to look out 100 years from now to keep the public land experience alive in this country,” Zinke said. “You can protect the monument by keeping public access to traditional uses.”
Zinke previously announced that no changes would occur at six of the 27 monuments under review – in Montana, Colorado, Idaho, California, Arizona and Washington – including Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument.
Zinke announced earlier in August that the reserve, located west of the Grand Canyon, has some of the most pristine geological formations in North America and as such would not be modified.
The formations “show the scientific history of our Earth while containing thousands of years of human relics and fossils,” he said.
National monument designations are used to protect land revered for natural beauty and historical significance. The restrictions aren’t as stringent as those at national parks but can include limits on mining, timber-cutting and recreational activities, such as riding off-road vehicles.
The monuments under review were designated by four presidents over the past two decades.
No president has tried to eliminate a monument, but some have reduced or redrawn the boundaries on 18 occasions, according to the National Park Service.
Reporter Brady McCombs from Salt Lake City and Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker from Washington contributed to this report.