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Exclusive: ‘We will circle all the wagons’ — Newly obtained emails show San Juan County’s push to reduce Bears Ears

Years later, new county leaders want to see the national monument expanded even beyond the original borders.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) In this Dec. 4, 2017, file photo, President Donald Trump is surrounded by Utah leaders at the Utah Capitol, as well as then-San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally (far left), as he signs the presidential proclamation to shrink Bears Ears national monument. San Juan County hired a law firm that paid several lobbyists to pressure then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (center, top) and others in the Trump administration to make the cuts. Newly obtained emails show San Juan County's lobbying effort on Bears Ears.

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Before President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears National Monument in December 2016, San Juan’s Republican-controlled County Commission was already devising a strategy to get it rescinded.

Phil Lyman, then a commissioner and now a state legislator, had signed a representation agreement between the county and the Louisiana-based Davillier Law Group two months earlier in a closed-door meeting. And as soon as President Donald Trump took his oath of office in early 2017, the attorneys and commissioners went on the offensive.

“We will circle all wagons around the White House for our approach,” George Wentz, Davillier’s lead attorney representing San Juan County, wrote in a Feb. 7 email. “It will not be a cold call.”

(The Salt Lake Tribune) This Feb. 7, 2017, email shows early efforts by George Wentz, an attorney for Davillier Law Group who was working for San Juan County, to lobby the Trump administration to reduce or rescind Bears Ears National Monument. Rob Porter was White House staff secretary at the time, Greg Hughes was speaker of the Utah House, Reince Priebus was White House chief of staff, and Steve Bannon was an adviser to Trump. Keven Stratton is a member of the Utah House.

The lobbying effort that followed is detailed in thousands of pages of emails between the Davillier Law Group and county officials that The Salt Lake Tribune obtained under state open records laws last month after more than two years of delays.

The emails, along with previously released billing records from the Davillier firm, show how Wentz and his colleagues assembled a team of lobbyists to fight for a reduction or rescission of Bears Ears, including pressure placed on multiple officials within the Trump administration in the lead-up to the former president’s eventual decision to slash the monument by 85% and break it into two separated units.

Now, with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, under the Biden administration, visiting San Juan County this week to review Trump’s cuts, she faces a different political landscape, at least on the regional level.

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to serve in a Cabinet post, is scheduled to meet Thursday with the county’s first Native American-majority commission, which was voted into office in a court-ordered special election in 2018 after a protracted voting rights lawsuit.

The new commission has passed resolutions reversing the county’s stance against the monument. Instead, it is calling on President Joe Biden not only to restore Bears Ears to the 1.35 million-acre boundaries Obama set aside but also to expand it to the 1.9 million acres originally requested by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

Map shows original boundary of Bears Ears National Monument and the boundaries of the units that were carved out of the reduced monument

San Juan launches lobbying effort

Emails between Lyman and Wentz date back to 2015, when Wentz was part of an effort funded by the Utah Legislature to devise a legal strategy for transferring federal public lands to state control.

The records show Wentz’s involvement with San Juan County beginning to take shape in August 2016, when the attorney co-wrote a National Review op-ed favorable to Lyman, who had recently been fined $96,000 and sentenced to 10 days in jail after being convicted for leading an ATV protest ride in Recapture Canyon in 2014.

“Fantastic article!” Lyman wrote “... Thanks for the communication.”

The lawyer and the county commissioner kept up a correspondence on Bears Ears over the following months. In October, Wentz sent Lyman and his fellow commissioners a representation agreement and requested a $10,000 retainer. Davillier was hired to fight a monument designation, which was being backed by environmental and Indigenous nonprofits as well as the governments of the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian nations with support from dozens of additional tribes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) In this Dec. 4, 2017, file photo, Bruce Adams, left, chairman of the San Juan County Commission, and San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, pose for photographs during a visit of President Donald Trump, at the Utah Capitol.

In late October, Wentz forwarded Lyman an email from Doyel Shamley, of Veritas Research Consulting, a right-wing natural resources consultant who has flirted with Illuminati conspiracy theories, according to Mother Jones magazine.

The email included a news release outlining an order signed by Obama’s Interior secretary, Sally Jewell, that sought to boost tribal consultation over certain public lands by facilitating “collaborative partnerships and the integration of tribal ecological knowledge ... into the management of federal lands … where there is a connection to tribal communities.”

After quoting from the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Shamley wrote, “WTP [we the people], the non-tribal People, are getting taken to the cleaners.”

“[T]hey’re not going to get our private property,” he added, referring to Indigenous people, “just all the public lands...for now.”

Wentz sent the email to Lyman with the note: “This is an amazing over reach [sic].”

Four days later, Lyman signed the retainer agreement in a meeting that was closed to the public, noting in an email to then-state Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, that Davillier’s efforts could cost the county $500,000.

The law firm’s billings to the county would approach that amount within seven months.

Lobbying Trump on Bears Ears begins

Davillier Law Group approached monument reductions from multiple angles in early 2017. Attorneys and consultants worked on legal strategy for fighting Obama’s proclamation while also serving a public relations role. They also drafted resolutions and a presidential proclamation for Trump that would reduce the monument’s boundaries, though it’s unclear if the latter ever was used. The bulk of the firm’s efforts, however, appear to have gone toward lobbying.

In January, Wentz hired Brian M. Kelly, CEO of several military contracting companies that manufacture tactical gear and surveillance equipment.

San Juan County was billed $32,900 for professional services and travel expenses that same month by Industrial Security Alliance Partners (ISAP), one of Kelly’s companies, though Kelly’s name does not appear on the law firm’s invoices until several months later. ISAP was kept on a $25,000 per month retainer through April.

“Brian Kelly is a former Navy SEAL as well [as Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke],” Lyman told The Tribune this week in a phone interview, “and he was connected to Ryan Zinke on a number of different fronts. He had the ability to pick up the phone and call Ryan, and he would get a sit-down meeting with him.”

Lyman said Kelly went to Washington on at least one occasion to plead the case with Zinke for reducing Bears Ears.

Around the same time, Wentz contacted Steve Yates, who was deputy national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney from 2001 to 2005 and chair of the Idaho Republican Party from 2014 to 2017. Yates’ firm, DC International Advisory, which lobbies on behalf of foreign governments, was also placed on a $25,000 per month retainer.

Wentz prepared a one-page sheet on Bears Ears, which he said he had “placed in front of Sec. Zinke, [Energy Secretary Rick] Perry and key White House staff on [San Juan County’s] behalf in January.” Yates held “exploratory meetings in D.C. at the congressional and White House levels” in March, according to Wentz’s emails.

The Salt Lake Tribune

Monique Aschkenasy of Dax and Associates was copied on emails with Kelly and spoke with Wentz on multiple occasions. Aschkenasy was a longtime associate of Duane Clarridge, a CIA operative who was indicted during the Iran-Contra affair and pardoned by President George H.W. Bush before establishing a private international espionage firm The New York Time dubbed a “private CIA.” Clarridge died in 2016.

Lyman said he couldn’t recall the specific details of the work Aschkenasy or Yates did on behalf of the county but added that they played a similar role as Kelly in getting the Bears Ears message to people in Washington.

“When you’re trying to get the message to the administration,” Lyman said, “you have to kind of push in every direction and see what you can actually get through, because it’s difficult, and there’s a large bureaucracy. So some of those people who have friendships and relationships make a lot of difference.”

Kelly and Yates do not appear to have registered as lobbyists for Davillier or San Juan County under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which requires individuals to disclose repeated lobbying of one or more covered executive branch officials, including Cabinet members and their staff.

The Tribune attempted to contact Wentz, Yates, Kelly and Aschkenasy for this article. None of them responded.

Uranium, national security pitched as reason for Bears Ears reduction

The key piece of the argument used in the lobbying effort was the presence of uranium in the Bears Ears region. In multiple emails, Wentz said protections imposed by a national monument should be considered a national security issue.

On Jan. 25, 2017, Wentz wrote a detailed email to Kelly and attached a one-page sheet on Bears Ears National Monument, arguing that if the monument remained in place, it would hinder the domestic supply of uranium because it would put deposits of the radioactive mineral off-limits to mining — despite the fact that Obama’s boundaries excluded the highest-grade uranium deposits in the region from the monument.

The monument, Wentz wrote, “will put out of business the nation’s last operating uranium ore mill [Energy Fuels’ White Mesa Mill near Blanding] — the only mill in the US that can produce yellowcake. Essentially, if this monument goes forward [without rescission or reduction], our country will be dependent on foreign governments for its uranium from now on.”

An hour later, Wentz forwarded the email to Lyman, writing, “See below and attached which is being personally presented to incoming Energy Sec. Perry tonight.”

Energy Fuels was also pushing for reductions to the monument in 2017, though company executives have maintained in recent interviews with The Tribune that they requested trimming its acreage only from between 19,000 and 35,100 acres, not the 1.1 million acres Trump eventually would slice from it.

While the company often points to national security issues as a reason to prop up the domestic mining industry, it never appears to have argued publicly that the Bears Ears designation alone would decimate uranium production in the country.

Mark Chalmers, CEO of Energy Fuels since 2018, said at a December San Juan County Commission meeting that the company is open to “possible reevaluation of Bears Ears.”

The Salt Lake Tribune

“We need to get on the phone with the head of Energy Fuels,” Wentz wrote in a March 2017 email to Lyman, “to discuss the monument and its impact on the uranium industry in general and White Mesa in particular. The national security element of this is critical, and I need to get it developed further. It will be a major piece of our proclamation rescinding.”

On April 9, Wentz again contacted Kelly and reiterated the same talking points related to national security and uranium.

“I write to follow up on your communications to date with Sec. Zinke regarding this important issue,” he said.

According to billing records, Kelly appears to have made contact with Zinke’s office shortly after the email was sent and arranged a meeting that included the three San Juan County commissioners at the time — Republicans Lyman and Bruce Adams, and Rebecca Benally, a Democrat and member of the Navajo Nation — with Zinke in Washington. The closed meeting took place several weeks later and, along with a subsequent meeting between the commissioners and Zinke in Utah, led to a still-unresolved lawsuit against the county under Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act.

To prepare for the second meeting between the commissioners and Zinke, Wentz repeated in an email that uranium issues offered the strongest argument for shrinking the monument.

“The national security issue is a key differentiator for Bears Ears,” Wentz wrote. “The President would be in his most powerful position to defend his actions in court if he rescinds based on national security issues.”

Trump’s Dec. 4, 2017, proclamation reducing the monument mentioned neither national security nor uranium.

San Juan’s lobbying costs pile up

With Utah’s governor, federal delegation (including powerful Sen. Orrin Hatch), numerous other conservative state lawmakers and think tanks such as the Sutherland Institute also pushing for a smaller Bears Ears, it’s unclear how large of a role Davillier’s lobbying played in Trump’s ultimate decision.

Invoices submitted to the county on the Bears Ears matter ceased after May 2017, and the county turned down Wentz’s requests that Davillier intervene on the county’s behalf in the December 2017 lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental groups and five Native American tribes against the monument reductions.

As The Tribune has previously reported, the slew of legal entanglements that San Juan County — which suffers from Utah’s highest poverty rate — ran into from 2015 to 2018, including Davillier’s lobbying, drained the county’s rainy-day fund and resulted in a tax increase in 2019, which later was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On multiple occasions, Wentz charged his $500 per hour rate to travel to and from Utah, including billing $8,285 for a single day’s work Jan. 27, 2017, when he was on the clock for San Juan County for 17 hours and 12 minutes. That number included $2,750 for 5½ hours of plane travel. ISAP appears to have billed more than $8,000 in travel expenses in January 2017.

All told, $183,000 went to ISAP and DC International Advisory, Kelly and Yates’ respective firms.

Michelle Kuppersmith, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability, which has questioned Davillier’s past charges to Utah taxpayers, said the fees and newly released emails indicate the firm was more interested in making money than anything else.

“Politicians are always talking about the need to spend taxpayer funds wisely,” she said. “...These newly — and belatedly — released emails further crystallize the sketchiness of the entire effort.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, listens as West Jordan Republican Rep. Jordan Teuscher presents a bill before the House Government Operations Committee at the Utah Capitol, Feb. 5, 2021.

Lyman and Adams, the latter remains on the commission, have maintained that the expenditures, while steep, were a good investment for the county and that Davillier’s work was critical in reducing the monument.

“It was really phenomenal what message we were able to get out,” Lyman said, “from this small little corner of Utah to the people that made that decision for Trump to come out [to Salt Lake City and reduce the monument in late 2017]. No one is singly responsible for it, but Davillier certainly was a key in making that all happen for us.”

Will Bears Ears be restored?

The lawsuits over Trump’s reductions remain unresolved. Biden is expected to expand Bears Ears by executive order in the coming months, leaving the legality of making monument cuts under the Antiquities Act — which explicitly allows presidents to create monuments but does not specify whether they can reduce them — in legal limbo.

Utah’s congressional delegation and state leaders have warned that restoring the monument by presidential proclamation will continue the game of “political football” that will never fully settle the land status for large national monuments in the state. Republican leaders in Utah are calling for legislation that would settle the question of the monument’s boundaries.

The Democratic majorities on the new three-member San Juan County Commission and the seven-member Grand County Commission have said they will voice their support to Haaland this week for a prompt restoration of the monument under the Antiquities Act.

Davillier, meanwhile, soon may be working for Utah again. In December, the state opened the door to negotiate contracts potentially worth a combined $1 million with two vendors — Davillier and Sunrise Engineering — “for development of land management plans and for policy advocacy.”

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