Is Bears Ears too big? New poll says Utahns split on shrinking the monument

Poll • Voters split on shrinking the new monument, but most back limiting authority under Antiquities Act.

While Utah's political leaders are largely united in arguing the new Bears Ears National Monument must be shrunk, a far smaller share of Utahns agrees that the 1.3 million-acre monument covers too much terrain in San Juan County.

A new Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute poll found that 43 percent of registered voters believe the controversial monument is too big, while 39 percent disagreed. The poll also found most Utahns believe Congress should consider amending the Antiquities Act to limit presidential authority to designate monuments.

Pollster Dan Jones & Associates queried 614 registered voters July 18 through 20 — in the wake of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's announcement he would recommend "right-sizing" the monument designated by President Barack Obama.

Using executive powers under the Antiquities Act, Obama proclaimed the monument at the request of five American Indian tribes with ancestral and spiritual ties to the lands in and around Cedar Mesa and Bears Ears Buttes. But in deference to the wishes of local and state leaders, Obama excluded about 650,000 acres that the tribes had requested in their proposal.

Zinke will release final details on Bears Ears in late August along with recommendations for 26 other large monuments designated since 1996.

The new poll found men, active Mormons, Republicans and older voters were more likely to say Bears Ears is too big.

And by a margin of 53 percent to 37 percent, Utah voters favored limits on presidents' ability to designate monuments. Utah leaders say the 1906 Antiquities Act — which past presidents used to establish monuments that became Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches and Capitol Reef national parks — has outlived its usefulness because many laws have since been enacted to protect wildlife, habitat, wilderness cultural resources, water quality and airsheds.

Rep. Rob Bishop argues presidents have regularly abused the act for political purposes and has pointed to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante as examples. But Sally Jewell, who served as Obama's second-term Interior secretary, rejected that characterization, saying that all monument designations she oversaw were the fruit of careful study. She said she declined to advance some worthy monument proposals to the disappointment of many in the conservation community.

"The work had not been done where you had a clear and defensive reason to exercise the president's authority under the Antiquities Act — that's understanding what's there, the science behind it, knowing it's the smallest area compatible [with proper care for the lands to be protected], hiding public meetings getting local input, working with elected officials to see if there was a congressional way forward," she told The Tribune's editorial board Wednesday.

The survey's Antiquities Act question also illustrated the sharp partisan divide on the issue. While 69 percent of Republicans favored limits, 20 percent of Democrats opposed neutering the Antiquities Act, which many, including Zinke, have credited for some of nation's best conservation success stories.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.95 percentage points.