SUWA can sue over Zinke’s secret meetings with Utah county commissioners over monuments

State’s high court also removes hefty fines as Bears Ears and Grand Staircase are the focal point of yet another legal tussle.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks at a news conference at the Kanab Airport in May 2017. Standing with him were Rep. Chris Stewart and a group of county commissioners.

Four years ago, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke met privately with three Utah county commissions as part of the process that led to the reduction of two large national monuments.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA, challenged the legality of the secret meetings in court, where the group not only lost but also was ordered to pay tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees to Kane, Garfield and San Juan counties.

Now, thanks to rulings handed down Thursday by the Utah Supreme Court, SUWA will get to keep its money and haul the counties back into court over the Zinke meetings.

The unanimous rulings, both written by Chief Justice Matthew Durrant, could have broad implications for how rural county commissions conduct business when their members meet with federal officials to discuss important land-management concerns.

The disputes stem from meetings Zinke held with the three county commissions in May 2017, when these locally elected officials asked then-President Donald Trump’s Interior secretary to dramatically shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in their respective counties. SUWA alleged the meetings were not noticed, the public wasn’t allowed to participate, and no minutes were posted, all in violation of Utah’s open meetings laws.

But 6th District Judge Marvin Bagley and 7th District Judge Lyle Anderson, who has since retired, threw out the cases after concluding SUWA had no standing to sue and brought the suits in “bad faith.”

The two judges ruled the county commissions were not required to notice their meetings with Zinke because they were discussing issues, namely adjustments to a national monument, over which the commissioners had no authority.

While it is true that county commissions hold no authority over monument boundaries, the high court rejected the judges’ logic and remanded both cases for further proceedings.

“This decision incorrectly assumes that the only potential action discussed at the meetings was the federal government’s revocation of the monument,” Durrant wrote in the Kane County case, which covered Zinke’s review of the Grand Staircase. “This assumption overlooks key portions of SUWA’s complaint.”

In other words, any number of issues could have come up in those meetings that the county commissions could very well have had authority over.

The lower judges had also concluded SUWA’s suits had no merit, so Bagley had ordered the group to pay Kane and Garfield counties nearly $53,000 and Anderson ordered $3,000 paid to San Juan. Again, these findings were in error, Durrant wrote, since SUWA had adequately stated its case, although the counties may still eventually prevail.

In the meantime, Bears Ears (in San Juan County) and Grand Staircase-Escalante (in Kane and Garfield counties) national monuments are the subject of yet another review ordered by a new president, Joe Biden. Many expect this process to result in the restoration of the monuments, which Trump reduced by 2 million acres on Zinke’s recommendation.

That review will likely be led by Deb Haaland, Biden’s yet-to-be-confirmed choice to lead Interior. In testimony Wednesday before the U.S. Senate, the New Mexico congresswoman vowed to come to Utah and listen to stakeholders, including county commissions.

Maybe this time the meetings will be open to the public.