Washington • Before Bears Ears National Monument existed, there were already efforts to get rid of it.
Just days ahead of Donald Trump’s victory launching him into the White House, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, flew to Arizona to join the Republican nominee’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., to rally support for the GOP ticket.
Then-President Barack Obama wouldn’t name the new national monument in southeastern Utah for another month, but Hatch was aware the designation was undoubtedly coming. He took the chance to bend Don Jr.’s ear about it, knowing that Trump’s eldest son was an avid hunter and shared an interest in public lands.
Hatch pitched the anti-monument cause as a “fight back against Washington overreach,” mirroring the GOP nominee’s drain-the-swamp campaign mantra.
While polls and pundits expected a Hillary Clinton presidency, Hatch and others had already started laying the groundwork to overturn any Obama action should Trump win the White House. And when he did, the concerted, full-court press began, according to officials involved at several levels of the Utah effort.
“It started well before,” said Boyd Matheson, president of the Sutherland Institute, which helped lead the fight against the monument and subsequently to shrink it. “Every elected official from the mayors to the commissioners, every single elected representative, got engaged in it. It was the real, Utah cumulative, everybody-pull-together kind of thing.”
Obama, as expected, named 1.35 million acres of federal land as the Bears Ears National Monument in late December, just a month before leaving office. Tribes and environmentalists celebrated, but Utah officials were angry.
Strategy sessions began with Gov. Gary Herbert, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, San Juan County commissioners, state lawmakers and the Utah federal delegation to figure out the best approach to prod the incoming administration to act. Some wanted a full rescission of Obama’s new monument while others cautioned it would be best to keep the designation but reduce it dramatically.
The Trump administration had a lot to do in the transition, mainly because many in the campaign had bought into the narrative that Hillary Clinton would win. With the whole Cabinet to nominate, a White House to staff and pending national security and domestic agendas to be plotted, public lands weren’t on the top of the list.
But they were for Utah leaders.
“Utah definitely made sure that it was on the president’s radar,” Matheson said.
The effort included calls, emails, letters and sit-downs with transition officials.
When Trump nominated then-Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke to head the Interior Department, Hatch summoned the would-be secretary into his office. Hatch’s support for the nominee rested almost solely on “his willingness to work with our congressional delegation to help us clean up the mess the Obama administration created in San Juan County,” the senator said at the time.
Five days after Trump took office, Hatch sat down with him in the Oval Office, where Bears Ears National Monument was a main topic.
Then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, also made the case to the president during an Oval Office meeting in early February. Trump didn’t make any promises at that time, but Chaffetz said Trump was “very sympathetic to the hardship that it creates for Utahns.”
Chaffetz brought documents: a letter from the whole Utah delegation asking Trump to revoke the Bears Ears monument and a resolution passed by the Utah Legislature and signed by Herbert pleading for the same.
Still, Utah officials needed help getting their message to the president, and the back channel, for some, was Trump Jr.
Chaffetz said it’s hard to overestimate how much the president’s son’s influence helped advance the anti-monument cause.
“Early on, before Trump was elected the president but while he was the nominee, Donald Trump Jr. was very aware of this,” said Chaffetz, now a Fox News contributor. “And in the family, he’s really the outdoorsman. He’s the guy who likes to strap on the camouflage jacket and explore the outdoors. He’s an avid hunter and he was well briefed on this.”
Hatch, meanwhile, kept up the pressure on the Interior Department and the White House, prompting, at times, weekly or more frequent calls with officials there.
At one point, the choice had to be made: Push for a full rescission of Bears Ears National Monument, or a reduction.
Hatch’s legal team and the White House counsel determined that since there had been no precedent for a president to remove a monument but instances of changed boundaries, the best likelihood to survive a legal challenge was to shrink the monument.
And it wouldn’t stop with Bears Ears.
Hatch’s office floated the idea of Zinke reviewing some other recent designations of monuments, a time period that was later extended to include the 1996 naming of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
In the West Wing and Interior, the new push became known as the “Hatch E.O.,” short for the Hatch executive order. Trump at one point referred to it as “Orrin’s monument thing.”
“I also want to recognize Sen. Orrin Hatch, who — believe me, he’s tough. He would call me and call me and say, ‘You got to do this.’ Is that right, Orrin?”
— President Donald Trump
And Trump made sure that Hatch got credit when he trekked to Zinke’s sixth-floor Interior suite in April to sign that executive order mandating a review of all monuments back to 1996.
“I also want to recognize Sen. Orrin Hatch, who — believe me, he’s tough,” Trump declared. “He would call me and call me and say, ‘You got to do this.’ Is that right, Orrin?”
“That’s right,” Hatch replied.
“You didn’t stop,” the president told him. “He doesn’t give up. And he’s shocked that I’m doing it, but I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. But I really have to point you out, you didn’t stop.”
Chaffetz argues the whole rollback could have been avoided if the environmental community was more willing to compromise and didn’t push for such a large monument. Trump, he said, would have had less interest in looking at it.
“If President Obama had done something more reasonable, I doubt it would have attracted the attention of the new administration,” Chaffetz said.
But Trump, who is expected to shave off more than a million acres each from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments, has made his presidency in some ways one of erasing Obama’s legacy. That will soon include the largest removal of public-lands protection in U.S. history.
Defenders of Bears Ears point to Obama’s rejection of a larger 1.9 million-acre monument footprint championed by a coalition of five American Indian tribes to one closer in size to what was proposed in public-lands legislation sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop and Chaffetz.
Matheson spins it another way, noting that Trump got elected on a campaign to work for Americans who haven’t felt their voices or concerns heard in Washington.
“It’s a nod in many respects to the forgotten men and women,” Matheson said. “It’s a nod to the little guy who has been abused by government overreach.”