Instead of former President Barack Obama designating such a large area, “it would have been more appropriate to identify and separate the areas that have significant objects to be protected,” Zinke wrote.
Zinke also recommended that Trump ask Congress to enable tribal co-management of the monument. The Interior Department is expected to complete a full review and offer more specific recommendations, including how much the monument’s size should change, later this year.
“It’s a little premature to throw out acreage,” Zinke said in a call with reporters Monday.
Bears Ears National Monument is protected public land in southeastern Utah, named after a pair of buttes and home to thousands of Native American archaeological and cultural sites. It is one of 27 national monuments threatened by a pair of executive orders that Trump signed in April.
One order tasks the Interior Department with reviewing all federal monuments 100,000 acres or larger that have been established or expanded under the Antiquities Act since Jan. 1, 1996. The other instructs the Department of Commerce to review all marine sanctuaries and monuments designated or expanded within the last 10 years.
In launching his review last month, Zinke insisted that “there is no predetermined outcome on any monument.” For those following closely, however, that seemed like nothing more than a talking point.
In April, when Trump signed the executive order tasking Zinke with reviewing 21 years of designations, he was flanked by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) and the state’s U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch (R) and Mike Lee (R) — staunch opponents of the Bears Ears monument. Trump spoke as if a reversal was already a done deal, as he praised the three men for their “never-ending prodding” on the issue.
Trump also gave Zinke a shorter time frame to conduct his review of Bears Ears than any of the other monuments being considered. And the president said during the signing ceremony that Bears Ears was designated a monument “over the profound objections of the citizens of Utah” and “should never have happened.”
Zinke, like Trump, has suggested the monument won’t survive as-is. In April, he said the Antiquities Act has “become a tool of political advocacy rather than public interest.” And during a visit to Bears Ears last month, Zinke said he believed the area should be preserved, but “the issue is whether the monument is the right vehicle.”
“It is public land,” he said. “It was public land before the monument. It will be public land after the monument. What vehicle of public land is appropriate to preserve the cultural identity, to make sure the tribes have a voice and to make sure you protect the traditions of hunting and fishing and public access?”
Zinke did not tour Bears Ears with representatives of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group of five Native American tribes that came together to petition for monument status. Instead, he was joined by monument opponents, including Herbert and members of the San Juan County Commission, the county where Bears Ears is located. During his visit, which the Interior Department called a “listening tour,” Zinke seemed to lose his manners after a protester repeatedly asked why he hadn’t spent more time talking with tribal leaders. Holding up his finger, the secretary forcefully ordered the woman to “Be. Nice.”
Zinke said Monday that he spent a lot of time listening and learning about the area, and it’s important the public understand his recommendations were “not made in a bubble in Washington, D.C.” He said he’s confident his suggestions are in the interest of Utah, the tribes and the country.
The revised boundaries, Zinke said, would focus on providing protections for historic structures and objects, including Native American dwellings, archeological sites and drawings.
“The Bears Ears region is not a series of isolated objects, but the object itself, a connected, living landscape, where the place, not a collection of items, must be protected. You cannot reduce the size without harming the whole.”
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition condemned Zinke’s recommendation in a statement Monday as a “slap in the face to the members of our Tribes and an affront to Indian people all across the country.”
“Any attempt to eliminate or reduce the boundaries of this Monument would be wrong on every count,” the coalition said. “Such action would be illegal, beyond the reach of presidential authority.”
Moreover, the advocates said, “The Bears Ears region is not a series of isolated objects, but the object itself, a connected, living landscape, where the place, not a collection of items, must be protected. You cannot reduce the size without harming the whole. Bears Ears is too precious a place, and our cultures and values too dignified and worthy, to backtrack on the promises made in the Presidential Proclamation.”
Environmental groups also slammed Zinke’s decision.
Heidi McIntosh, Earthjustice’s managing attorney in the Rocky Mountains, said unilaterally shrinking the monument “would violate both the Antiquities Act and the separation of powers doctrine.” If Trump follows Zinke’s recommendation, McIntosh promised Earthjustice would see the administration in court.
Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, called Zinke’s recommendation “an undeniable attack on our national monuments and America’s public lands.”
“An undeniable attack on our national monuments and America’s public lands.”
“Instead of reinforcing America’s conservation heritage, Secretary Zinke is recommending President Trump take actions that are both unprecedented and illegal,” Rokala said in a statement. “The law is clear: only Congress can modify or erase a national monument. This report, while disappointing, is not a surprise. President Trump made it clear the fix was in from the moment he signed the executive order, despite overwhelming public support for national monuments.”
Hatch applauded Zinke’s decision in a video posted to Twitter on Monday. In a statement, Herbert called the report “an important first step toward re-establishing sound land management practices for one of the most special areas in the world.”
Last month, the Interior Department denied reports that Zinke had already made up his mind and would recommend abolishing Bears Ears. San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman reportedly told E&E News that Zinke disclosed his plans during a meeting with the commission earlier that month.
Lyman insisted to HuffPost that E&E News had misquoted him and that he didn’t say Zinke would definitely recommend abolishing the monument. However, “my impression is he’d like to rescind it,” Lyman said.
Asked Monday why he didn’t recommend abolishing the monument, Zinke said that was an option. “But looking at it, there are some antiquities within the monument that I think deserve to be protected,” he said. “I have enormous respect for the tribes and I do want to push sovereignty, respect to self-determination. And I’m very sensitive to cultural traditions, rituals that have conducted and are continuing to conduct on Bears Ears.”
It’s not clear where Trump got the idea that a majority of Utah residents oppose Bears Ears. An analysis conducted by the Center for Western Priorities last month found that 99 percent of the more than 685,000 public comments submitted during a recent 15-day comment period voiced support for the Obama-era monument.
Trump and Zinke’s comments about the Antiquities Act are also unfounded. In an April press release, the Interior Department wrote, “Since the 1900s, when the [Antiquities] Act was first used, the average size of national monuments exploded from an average of 422 acres per monument. Now it’s not uncommon for a monument to be more than a million acres.”
During the executive order’s signing ceremony, Zinke noted that America’s first national monument, Devils Tower in Wyoming, was less than 1,200 acres. President Theodore Roosevelt designated the monument in 1906.
“Yet, in recent years, we’ve seen monuments span tens of millions of acres,” Zinke said, in a clear reference to marine monument designations and expansions by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
The argument is that the law was established to set set aside small areas and that recent administrations have abused this.
But the 422-acre figure is, at best, cherry-picked. In 1908, two years after the Antiquities Act became law, Roosevelt — of whom Zinke is an “unapologetic admirer and disciple” — designated more than 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon as a national monument. Only a few Obama-era land monuments are larger. Roosevelt also designated the 20,629-acre Chaco Canyon National Monument and the 610,000-acre Mount Olympus National Park.
Republican presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover both designated monuments over a million acres. Coolidge set aside Alaska’s Glacier Bay in 1925, and Hoover set aside California’s Death Valley in 1933.
The Interior Department did not respond to HuffPost’s numerous requests seeking clarification on the 422-acre figure.
Sixteen presidents have used the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate 157 monuments; however, no president has ever tried to revoke a designation. If Trump does indeed try, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and other groups have promised to sue.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the date Death Valley National Monument was established as 1937; it was established in 1933.