Washington • President Donald Trump plans to visit Utah in December to announce that he will trim the boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, a move that is likely to spur an instant court battle.
Trump, after meeting with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke earlier Friday, called Sen. Orrin Hatch to tell him that he has decided to change the designations that Hatch, the Utah delegation and state officials have been pushing.
“I’m approving the Bears Ears recommendation for you, Orrin,” the president told the Utah Republican in a phone call, according to Hatch’s office.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to detail what Trump and Zinke discussed but confirmed the president would go in person to Utah soon.
“I will not get ahead of the president’s announcement on the specifics of that, but I can tell you he will be going to Utah in the first part of early December, and we will be releasing more details at that point,” she said at the press briefing, noting that Trump spoke with Hatch and fellow Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee.
It was unclear what exactly Trump would approve, though Zinke has suggested the president shrink the boundaries of the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah that President Barack Obama named shortly before leaving office last year at the request of five American Indian tribes.
According to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Trump told him Friday that changes to Bears Ears would “honor” what the state has recommended. During Zinke’s monuments review this year, Utah officials advocated contracting the monument to a 120,000-acre area stretching from Bears Ears Buttes across Mule Canyon to the Butler Wash ruins on Comb Ridge.
“I appreciate the president and the secretary’s efforts to listen to local concerns and seek a balance when it comes to the complex issues of managing and protecting our public lands,” Herbert said in statement. “ ... Our recommendations have been, first, that any new boundaries protect the extraordinary antiquities within these areas. Second, that local Native Americans be given meaningful co-management of the lands in the Bears Ears region. And, finally, that Congress be urged to pass appropriate protections for federal lands throughout southern Utah.”
Zinke, as ordered by Trump, had reviewed all monuments declared under the Antiquities Act since January 1996 and recommended changes to several, including the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is also in southern Utah and was set aside by then-President Bill Clinton.
Hatch said in a statement that he was “incredibly grateful” for Trump’s decision.
“We believe in the importance of protecting these sacred antiquities, but Secretary Zinke and the Trump administration rolled up their sleeves to dig in, talk to locals, talk to local tribes and find a better way to do it,” Hatch said in a statement. “We’ll continue to work closely with them moving forward to ensure Utahns have a voice.”
Approached by reporters at an event in Salt Lake City on Friday, Hatch said Trump “told me Bears Ears would be the way I said it should be,” though he offered no specifics on how the size would change. Hatch also said Trump would modify the Grand Staircase to allow coal mining in the Kaiparowits Plateau.
Reaction was swift from the environmental community, which had fought to protect the national monument area that includes tribal artifacts and culturally sensitive parcels. Several groups have said they will challenge any changes to existing monuments in court.
“If President Trump attacks the Bears Ears National Monument, it will long be viewed as one of the worst acts of injustice committed by a modern president,” said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “And one that inevitably will be rectified by a federal court.”
Nada Culver, director of the BLM Action Center for The Wilderness Society, added: “Neither we nor the vast majority of Americans are ‘grateful’ that the president will recommend dismantling the Bears Ears National Monument and risk the destruction of its incredible natural values and sacred sites.”
In a 30-second ad posted Thursday, Navajo Nation delegate Davis Filfred, a leading Bears Ears backer, pleads with the president to protect the nation’s heritage and leave national monuments intact.
“Not all monuments divide us. Some bring us together,” Filfred, a Marine veteran, said in the video. “If you destroy these monuments, our public land could be auctioned off. Our sacred tribal sites would be in danger.”
Paid for by the National Wildlife Federation, the video doesn’t name Bears Ears, but its imagery references rock art sites, the House on Fire ruins and vistas in the new monument.
“We have done enough downsizing already,” Filfred said Friday in an interview, noting the tribes’ initial proposal called for 1.9 million acres, nearly 50 percent more land than Obama designated.
Filfred is the Navajo representative on the five-member Bears Ears Commission formed pursuant to Obama’s monument proclamation that gives five tribes a special advisory role in monument management.
The commissioners were in Moab on Friday meeting with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, the agencies that administer the monument.
The monument honors Native Americans and provides a path for healing, according to Jonah Yellowman, a board member on the pro-monument grass-roots group Utah Dine Bikeyah.
“Bears Ears holds our prayers, medicine, and sacred grounds. President Trump should leave it alone and respect our people,” said Yellowman, a traditional Navajo healer. His group invited Trump to meet with tribal members in Monument Valley when he comes to Utah.
Filfred chided Hatch for “dancing around” in celebration of an action that sovereign tribes view as a grave insult.
“This is not going to bring us together. We need to keep our sacred ground and our monument. It needs to be protected and if he doesn’t, he is asking for litigation,” Filfred warned. “We will fight to the end. ... I’m going to stand my ground.”
Many legal scholars argue presidents lack legal authority to diminish monuments established by their predecessors, only Congress can take such an action.
Utah Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, shares many southeastern Utah constituents with Filfred, but he has an opposite view of Trump’s decision to shrink Bears Ears, which he applauded and is confident the courts will uphold.
By lifting monument status from these lands, Trump would be allowing greater public access and involvement in decision making, Noel contends. Lawmakers representing Utah’s rural corners say federal land management in general and national monuments in particular lock out the public and exclude those most affected by land-use decisions made by bureaucrats.
Noel argues for a “new paradigm” that allows states greater say and brings environmentalists to the table with ranchers, motorized travelers, archaeologists — “all the people who use public lands and weigh that against how it impacts private lands and our economy.”
“If you do that, you will get a better outcome than creating massive areas of land that create distrust with the federal government and don’t invite people,” Noel added. “We want to invite people to Kane and Garfield counties and San Juan County to visit. What we don’t want is where 90 percent of the land is locked up and not accessible.”
Hatch said Friday he was unhappy with the “radical and outside environmental groups” that have fought to keep Bears Ears as is, calling them “real screamers.” The senator said if the environmentalists sue, “they‘ll lose.”
Friday’s news delighted the San Juan County Commission, which has argued tirelessly against the monument’s designation within its borders. The county’s residents can be trusted to “take special care” of Cedar Mesa, Bears Ears Buttes, Arch Canyon, Elk Ridge and other “magnificent lands” within the new monument, the commissioners said in a statement.
“We are thrilled the years of meetings, countless hours of discussion and tirelessly dedicated advocacy [have] resulted in our voices being heard by President Trump and Secretary Zinke,” they said. “This is our home, no one wants to see it protected and secure for future generations more than we do.”
Don Peay, who organized the Utah for Trump effort during the presidential campaign and is founder of the group Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, said he’s grateful that Trump accepted “Zinke’s well-thought-out recommendation” and heaped praise on the interior secretary with whom he met this week.
“He has heard the voice of reason: sound conservation of our lands while protecting management ability for abundant herds and hunter access to our monuments,” Peay said.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said he is “excited about what‘s in store for Utah.”
“I am very confident this will be a win-win for our state,” he said in a statement.
But state Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, called the move an “ugly violation of stewardship responsibility” that will undermine Utah’s fastest growing industry: tourism.
“Trump, with the conniving help of the Utah congressional delegation, just strangled the golden goose of Utah’s future jobs — the outdoor recreation industry,” Dabakis said. “The winners in the president’s decision are the fossil fuels industry, giant international coal companies and the pollution industry. The losers are Utah families, outdoor enthusiasts, hunters, campers, climbers and all who appreciate the unspeakable beauty of our state.”
Businesses near the Grand Staircase-Escalante were also concerned about changes to the 21-year-old designation that they say has buoyed the area since Clinton named the monument.
“President Trump and Ryan Zinke’s attack on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is an attack on southern Utah’s entrepreneurs and the thousands of jobs that depend on the monument,” said Suzanne Catlett, president of the Escalante and Boulder Utah Chamber of Commerce. “The utter disregard for our thriving community and the views of local business owners like me, shows that President Trump could [not] care less about jobs in rural America.”
Reporter Mike Gorrell contributed to this article.