SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will start a four-day Utah trip Sunday to assess whether 3.2 million acres of national monuments in the state’s southern red rock region should be scaled down or even rescinded.
The re-evaluation of the new Bears Ears National Monument on sacred tribal lands and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created in 1996, is part of an executive order signed last month by President Donald Trump calling for a review of 27 national monuments established by several former presidents.
The Bears Ears monument, a source of ire for Utah’s conservative leadership, is a top priority in the review.
Zinke has been tasked with making a recommendation on that monument by June 10, about 2 ½ months before a final report about all the monuments.
Utah Republican leaders, led by U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, campaigned hard to get President Donald Trump to take a second look a monument designated by President Barack Obama near the end of his term.
Hatch and others contend the monument designation is a layer of unnecessary federal control that hurts local economies by closing the area to new energy development.
Hatch said in a statement he looks forward to hosting Zinke and showing him “our beautiful state and working with him to give the people of San Juan County a voice in protecting the lands they’ve lived on for generations.”
Zinke will spend Sunday in Salt Lake City before traveling Monday to the southeastern corner of Utah to spend time in the Bears Ears area.
On Wednesday, he’ll be in the area near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Interior officials haven’t made public the details of whom Zinke plans to meet with. But officials with a coalition of five tribes that pushed for the Bears Ears designation said they have a one-hour meeting with Zinke Sunday in Salt Lake City.
Natasha Hales, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition lead staffer, said members plan to tell Zinke about their long history with the Bears Ears land and the landscape’s sacred importance.
They also plan to reiterate that they willing to take legal action to defend the monument if needed.
“The Utah congressional delegation is cherry picking a few voices in opposition to this but there’s overwhelming support for this,” Hales said. “We wanted to take Secretary Zinke out on the ground with our people and show him around but that invitation was never extended.”
The monument review is rooted in the belief Trump and other critics that a law created by President Theodore Roosevelt to designate the monument has been improperly used to protect wide expanses of lands instead of places with particular historical or archaeological value.
Grand Staircase-Escalante is 1.9 million acres, about the size of Delaware. Bears Ears is a bit smaller at 1.3 million acres.
Conservation groups counter that the review puts in limbo protections on large swaths of land home to ancient cliff dwellings, towering Sequoias, deep canyons and oceans habitats where seals, whales and sea turtles roam.
Environmental groups have vowed to file lawsuits if Trump attempts to rescind monuments, which would be unprecedented.
Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, put ads in newspapers in Utah and Montana over the weekend playing off Trump’s own comments at the signing of the executive order in which he said, “I’ve heard a lot about Bears Ears, and I hear it’s beautiful.”
“Mr. President, Bears Ears National Monument is beautiful,” the ad said, listing how it has more species diversity than Yellowstone and darker skies than Yosemite.
Zinke has said the report will recommend whether any monuments should be abolished or resized.
He promises an open-minded approach and said he remains opposed to selling any federal land or transferring it to state or local control.
Congress might weigh in as well. Numerous bills on the issue were introduced in the previous session, including measures to prevent the president from establishing or expanding monuments in particular states and to require consent of Congress or state legislatures.