ST. GEORGE – President Donald Trump is moving to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, Sen. Orrin Hatch’s Office announced Friday. The decision follows recommendations to downsize the monuments made by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke earlier this year.
Hatch’s office said Trump called the senator and said, “I’m approving the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase recommendation for you, Orrin.”
“I was incredibly grateful when the president called this morning to let us know that he is approving Secretary Zinke’s recommendation,” Hatch said in a statement.
“Protecting sacred antiquities is a matter of critical importance, and Secretary Zinke and the Trump administration found a better way to do it by rolling up their sleeves, digging in and talking with Native American tribes,” he said. “We’ll continue working closely with locals moving forward to ensure that Utahns have a voice in this process.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would not confirm that Trump will shrink the Utah monuments, saying she did not want to “get ahead of the president’s announcement.”
Sanders says Trump will go to Utah in early December and that the administration will release details “at that point, if not some before.”
Gov. Gary Harbert said in a statement Friday that the president called him to discuss the recommendations to shrink the two national monuments. He also said he appreciated the Trump administration’s taking local concerns into consideration when dealing with such a complex issue.
“While we do not yet know the specifics of their final plan, I understand from our conversation that any final decision will honor our recommendations,” Herbert said.
“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. I look forward to working with our congressional delegation and the Trump administration on these issues.”
Zinke made the recommendations to shrink the two monuments in September following a review of 27 national monuments ordered by Trump in April. Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou have also been recommended for downsizing.
The two Utah monuments encompass more than 3.6 million acres — an area larger than Connecticut — and were created by Democratic administrations under the Antiquities Act, a century-old law that allows presidents to protect sites considered historic, geographically or culturally important.
Opponents of the monuments have argued that the Antiquities Act has been abused throughout the years by both Republican and Democratic presidents. They also point to a part of the act the states the size of the monument “shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
With Bear Ears at 1.3 million acres and Grand Staircase Escalante at 1.9 million, it has been argued by the monuments’ detractors that the scale of the monuments go far beyond what is necessary.
Bears Ears, designated for federal protection by former President Barack Obama, totals 1.3 million acres in southeastern Utah on land primarily in San Juan County that is sacred to Native Americans and home to tens of thousands of archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings.
In a statement issued Friday, the San Juan County Commission praised Trump’s decision to approve Zinke’s recommendations.
“As a commission, we are thrilled the years of meetings, countless hours of discussion and tirelessly dedicated advocacy has resulted in our voices being heard by President Trump and Secretary Zinke,” the commissioners said.
“We take heart in our shared belief that the people of San Juan will continue to take special care of these magnificent lands. This is our home, no one wants to see it protected and secure for future generations more than we do,” they said.
Grand Staircase-Escalante, set across Kane and Garfield counties, includes nearly 1.9 million acres in a sweeping vista larger than the state of Delaware. Republicans have howled over the monument designation since its creation in 1996 by former President Bill Clinton.
The establishment of the monument has been blamed for eliminating timber jobs once held in Garfield County and negatively impacting the county economy due to how it has been managed.
“We are thrilled the Department of the Interior and President Trump are looking for ways to improve the situation,” Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock said Friday.
Pollock said he hopes issues related to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument will gain more exposure and potentially be resolved as the Trump administration gives it a closer look. Such issues include revising the monument’s management plan, he said.
As for what a shrunken monument may look like, Pollock said his guess is as good as anyone’s as neither he nor the county in general know what Trump plans to do. Still, he said he applauds Zinke and Trump for “trying to make the situation better.”
Herbert said during one of his monthly news conferences that he believes Grand Staircase-Escalante could be broken into smaller monuments. There have also been reports by media outlets that Bears Ears could be reduced to under 200,000 acres.
Specific details regarding what the new size and boundaries of the monuments may be have yet to be released by the Trump administration.
Supporters of the two national monuments are less than thrilled with the day’s news.
State Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, posted on Twitter, “URGENT: Hatch: Bears Ears being shrunk. Grand Escalante to open for coal! Polluters Win. Utah Outdoor Enthusiast Families LOSE!”
URGENT: Hatch: Bears Ears being shrunk. Grand Escalante to open for coal! Polluters Win. Utah Outdoor Enthusiast Families LOSE! #utpol
— Jim Dabakis (@JimDabakis) October 27, 2017
KSL.com reported that Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said a lawsuit is being drafted and will be ready to file once Trump makes an official announcement.
“President Trump is making it clear that he stands with the most partisan and anti-lands faction of his party, not the majority of Americans,” said Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society. “The sneaky closed-door meetings that continue to happen are a slap in the face to the very public process that drove the protection efforts for Bears Ears as well as other national monuments across our country.”
Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it was “a disgrace” that Trump was moving to undo Bears Ears, which she described as “the nation’s first national monument created to honor Native American cultural heritage.”
Suh called it “a travesty” that Trump was “trying to unravel a century’s worth of conservation history – all behind closed doors,” adding, “The American people want these special places protected.”
National monument designations add protections for lands revered for their natural beauty and historical significance with the goal of preserving them for future generations. The restrictions aren’t as stringent as national parks, but some policies include limits on mining, timber cutting and recreational activities such as riding off-road vehicles.
No president has tried to eliminate a monument, but they have trimmed and redrawn boundaries 18 times, according to the National Park Service.
Associated Press reporters MATTHEW DALY and MICHELLE PRICE contributed to this story.