Tribune Editorial: Zinke's report leaves a monumental mess

In this photo taken April 26, 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks at the Interior Department in Washington. Ryan Zinke is recommending that the new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah be reduced in size and says Congress should step in to designate how selected areas of the 1.3 million-acre site are categorized. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

It was clear going in that President Trump’s order for the Interior Department to review a long list of national monuments, in Utah and elsewhere, was unlikely to solve anything.

The idea that Trump, or any president, has the legal authority under the Antiquities Act to undo or significantly alter monuments designated by his predecessors is legally doubtful, at best. Thus any orders built on any such bureaucratic review were certain to be tied up in court for years, at least, as monument supporters fought back. 

Now that the report from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been leaked to the press, it is apparent that the future of those monuments, especially Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, is even more muddled than it was before.

That might offer a glimmer of hope to people who oppose the whole idea of national monuments, to those who hold out a mostly irrational hope of an economic bonanza sparked by a land-rush of access to a lot of coal, oil, natural gas and grazing land that either isn’t there or isn’t profitably exploitable.

But Zinke’s report is so maddeningly vague that it provides the White House with little guidance on just what it should do, and what legal rationale it should offer for doing it.

The proposal put forward by the state of Utah, meanwhile, would shrink Bears Ears by 90 percent. That is an absurd idea, which would not even be out there if the current administration had done the right thing and announced that the monument would remain untouched. 

The path forward now is more confusion, more litigation, more bad blood among neighbors, between Native American Nations and county governments, less time devoted to working up a specific management plan for Bears Ears that might, if everyone approached it in good faith, work out a lot better for everyone than some of us think.

Zinke, as before, has a point when he argues that it would be better for all concerned if such decisions took the form of acts of Congress rather than presidential fiat. Such a process could be both more open and representative and more permanent. It might also, in the case of Bears Ears, put the force of law behind the Obama administration’s promise to give the concerned Native governments a more formal say in how the land, sacred to them and their ancestors, would be managed.

But Utah’s congressional delegation spent years trying to work up a legislative solution and, largely because of Rep. Rob Bishop’s open contempt for the Antiquities Act and his clear desire to favor the extractive economy over ancient ways, that never went anywhere.

Having been given little specific advice from his Interior Department, Trump will now have to wade through a lot more lobbying from all directions before he makes a decision.

This debate, sadly, is far from over.