Leaked memo: Zinke wants smaller monuments, but how small?

Interior secretary’s report to President Trump reveals only vague recommendations for shrinking Utah’s Bears Ears, Grand Staircase, other monuments.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke hikes along the Butler Wash Indian Ruin trail alongside Utah Gov. Gary Herbert during a tour of the Bears Ears National Monument on Monday, May 8, 2017.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke clearly has his sights on trimming national monuments in southern Utah, but his official report to President Donald Trump is so short on specifics it remains unclear where any “revised” boundaries to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante would fall.

Zinke’s findings, revealed in a 19-page memo leaked from the Department of Interior late Sunday, conclude that of 27 large U.S. monuments under review, the two Utah sites and two others exceed the size and scope envisioned under the Antiquities Act and should be resized.

Beyond that, his recommendations give no clue as to what lands should be included and excluded in a properly designated monument.

Zinke concluded that Presidents Obama and Clinton set certain monuments’ boundaries in an effort to prevent mining, logging and grazing, rather to protect “objects of historic or scientific interest.” Remedying those alleged misuses of the Antiquities Act is now in Trump’s hands.

What the president will decide is anyone’s guess, but with the importance that Zinke gives in his report to heeding the wishes of “local stakeholders,” it’s a good bet Trump will be guided by Utah and county leaders’ plans for sharp reductions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, large monuments weighing in at 1.3 million and 1.9 million acres, respectively.

Zinke also recommends unspecified boundary revisions to Nevada’s Gold Butte National Monument and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument on the California-Oregon border. And he also proposes loosening restrictions on six others: New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, Katahdin Woods in Maine, and three marine monuments.

The reports says specific recommendations will be submitted separately if the president agrees these monuments should be changed.

And his report urges Trump to consider three locations for new Antiquities Act designations, all celebrating the nation’s cultural diversity: Kentucky’s Camp Nelson, a Civil War site; several locales associated with the civil rights work of Medgar Evers; and the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area in Zinke’s home state of Montana.  

But Zinke’s call for a smaller Bears Ears is not sitting well with the Navajo Nation, one of five tribes that proposed the monument. That recommendation — along with Zinke’s request that Congress make other conservation designations — contradict all the input provided by the tribe, according to Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch.

Many legal scholars argue presidents do not have the authority to revoke or alter monuments designated by a predecessor, but this claim has yet to be tested in the courts.

In June, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert submitted a plan for trimming Bears Ears to approximately 120,000 acres — a 90 percent reduction.  And last week, the Republican governor said he expects Grand Staircase, designated by President Bill Clinton 21 years ago, to be knocked down to two or three smaller monuments.  

Though they lack specifics, Utah’s congressional delegation heaped praise on Zinke’s recommendations.

“The Trump administration is doing exactly what the previous administration didn’t do, listening to local voices,” Rep. Chris Stewart said, referring to President Barack Obama, who designated Bears Ears on Dec. 28 after sending his Interior secretary to San Juan County and fielding hours of public input.

Rep. Rob Bishop said Monday he was angered that Zinke’s report to Trump was released and called for an investigation.

“The president should have the time to evaluate the secretary’s review and develop actions without the encumbrance of incomplete information being leaked to the press,” said Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. “Had past administrations not blatantly abused this law, this evaluation process would not have been necessary in the first place. Now that the designation process is being scrutinized, it’s even more clear that abuses occurred and real problems were left unresolved or ignored.”

But the Zinke report delighted another outspoken monument critic, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman.  

“As this chapter closes and another one begins, hopefully, we realize that federal designations do not add to the beautiful planet we call home,” Lyman wrote in an op-ed to be published Tuesday in The Salt Lake Tribune. “The Antiquities Act has become a whip in the hands of environmental and political activists — groups that hope to annihilate opposing views simply by cranking up the volume of their opinions.”

Lyman argued that the Bears Ears designation was justified by “a false narrative” that unfairly impugned the county’s commitment to treat Native Americans fairly and to preserve its special landscapes. Such places are best managed in accordance with the wishes of host counties, he said, the level of government closest to the people.

Lyman’s views resonated with Zinke, whose report contends the strong public support for monument designations appeared rigged.

“These meetings were not always adequately notice to all stakeholders, and instead were filled with advocates organized by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to promote monument designation,” Zinke wrote in his report. “Too often, it is the local stakeholders who lack the organization, funding, and institutional support to compete with well-funded NGOs.”

“These meetings were not always adequately noticed to all stakeholders, and instead were filled with advocates organized by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to promote monument designation,” Zinke wrote in his report. “Too often, it is the local stakeholders who lack the organization, funding, and institutional support to compete with well-funded NGOs.”

Lyman praised Zinke, a former Navy SEAL commander, for refusing “to cow down to negative campaign efforts” pushed by monument backers.

“I hope the bad behavior of these groups will backfire, causing a ‘flagrant technical foul’ resulting in them not only losing yardage but eventually being ejected from the game,” Lyman wrote, mixing up analogies between basketball and football.

Experts say the Bears Ears controversy is expected to land in court, regardless of what Trump does.

“His so-called ‘review’ of national monuments is not only a political charade, but is also a legal farce, completely lacking in substance and rationale. If President Trump attempts to follow through on any of these recommendations, his actions will undoubtedly be overturned by the courts,” said Scott Groene of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. 

Anti-monument groups have likewise vowed to sue over the Bears Ears designation if it is allowed to stand.

In his 19-page report, Zinke is particularly concerned that monument rules curb access for hunting and fishing, close roads, preclude industrial development and complicate livestock grazing in ways that force ranchers to reduce stocking numbers.

Such action, Zinke wrote, is especially hard on rural communities in Western states given that “these towns have historically benefited from grazing, mining, and timber production on nearby public lands.”

And tourism revenues, he continued, do not necessarily “offset the lost or forgone revenue resulting from the limitations placed on land development.”

His report says hunters, anglers and recreationalists are at times prevented from visiting protected lands. “Further, some tribes raised concerns ... that their cultural practices such as wood and herb gathering are constrained by lack of access,” Zinke wrote.

His recommendations include amending monument proclamations to “protect objects and prioritize public access; infrastructure upgrades, repair, and maintenance; traditional use; tribal cultural use; and hunting and fishing rights.”

Zinke also called on Congress to enact laws that allow for tribal co-management at Bears Ears and other monuments. Even that promise failed to appease Navajo leaders, who were “disappointed” that Zinke would interfere with the special advisory role that Obama’s Bears Ears proclamation provides several tribes.

“The [Navajo] Nation played a critical role in advocating for and developing the model as described in the Proclamation; elimination of that model would undermine the purpose of the monument designation,” Branch said. “While we would welcome an even more robust regime for tribal management in federal legislation, no such legislation exists and no such discussions are occurring.”

Monument status leads to increased visitation, which adds new burdens and responsibilities upon federal land managers to provide resources and manpower to maintain these lands to support recreation, Zinke wrote.

Meanwhile, he critiqued what he sees as arbitrary and subjective definitions of objects to be preserved, sometimes keying to geographic areas, such as “viewsheds” and “ecoystems,” as opposed to specific objects as described in the Antiquities Act, the 1906 law that delegates presidents to unilaterally set aside public land to protect “antiquities.”

“Ideally,” Zinke wrote, “the ‘historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest,’ would be specifically identified, and then the quantity of land necessary to protect each object, if any, would be determined.”