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Gehrke: While wrangling over undoing Bears Ears continues, treasures go unprotected

First Published      Last Updated May 24 2017 12:03 pm

Utah's senators are not seeing eye to eye on what steps President Donald Trump should take when it comes to Bears Ears National Monument.

While Sen. Mike Lee is pushing hard for fully rescinding the entire monument, Sen. Orrin Hatch is taking a different approach, pushing the White House to dramatically shrink it, but leave a piece or pieces of the monument preserved, according to interviews with a half-dozen sources familiar with the behind-the-scenes lobbying effort.

Lee believes that rescinding the monument would force members of the conservation community to come to the table and discuss a broader overhaul of the Antiquities Act — the 1906 law that gave the president powers to create monuments to protect archaeological treasures.

Lee has not been shy about his opinion that the power has been abused, with presidents tying up sprawling expanses of federal land, culminating in President Obama's creation of Bears Ears National Monument in December.

Hatch, meanwhile, is pressing for the White House to shrink the monument but leave some of it in place, believing Trump is unlikely to expend the political capital to rescind the monument and that shrinking the monument may be more defensible in court, sources said.

In a way, the disagreement goes to how the senators balance their wishes with the real-world political realities in Washington.

Hatch's spokesman, Matt Whitlock, said in a statement that the senator's priority is ensuring that Utahns and residents of San Juan County get a voice in the protection and in the management of the land.

"In meetings and conversations with [Interior] Secretary [Ryan] Zinke, Senator Hatch has recommended a full recision but will accept whatever the secretary recommends to the President at the end of a fair and thorough review process," Whitlock said.

Lee, in a statement, said he backs eliminating the monument entirely.

"Any movement away from the current designation and towards something that better helps the residents of San Juan County would be welcome," he said, "but I do think a full rescision of the monument puts local, state, and federal communities in the best possible position to find a balanced legislative compromise for the public lands in southeast Utah."

All of this wrangling comes at the expense of any real action as the yearslong failure by leaders in Washington and Utah to protect the treasures in the Bears Ears region essentially forced Obama to designate the area a monument.

Now the Interior Department is taking public input through the end of the week on what should be done with the monument. You can submit a comment at www.regulation.gov. Those comments are overwhelmingly in favor of protecting the monument — although that is likely irrelevant. Zinke will make a recommendation to the president in early June, and Trump will decide what action to take.

Energy and Environment News quoted San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman in a story Monday, saying that Zinke told him that his inclination was to wipe out the entire monument.

"[Zinke] said, 'Well, let me tell you what I'm thinking: Not only should that monument be rescinded, but we're not going to stop there. We need to discuss all the dysfunctionality of public land management over the last three decades,'" Lyman told E&E News, although he told KSL on Tuesday that he was misquoted.

Those interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the behind-the-scenes negotiations are ongoing, don't see full monument recision happening. But they agree on one point: Bears Ears will not survive in its current state, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument could also be revised.

The most likely outcome, sources said, is that Trump will likely dramatically shrink the Bears Ears monument, down to two and possibly three parcels totaling fewer — possibly much fewer — than 150,000 acres.

The change would wipe out the monument designation for roughly 90 percent of the landscape. Maps are in the process of being refined in an indication that some portion of the monument will likely survive.

Meanwhile, Rep. Rob Bishop said he is reworking the Public Lands Initiative — rebranding it as PLI 2.0 — to make sure counties' concerns are addressed or, if they can't be addressed, their portions are dropped from the bill. Bishop said he hopes to have the bill introduced and heard in the House this year.

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