President Trump is “eager to work with” Republican lawmakers on undoing new federal protections for Bears Ears, a sacred tribal site in Utah, according to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah.).
Former president Barack Obama designated the 1.35 million-acre area, which includes artifacts and rock drawings from ancestral Pueblos, as a national monument in late December. But Hatch and several other key Utah Republicans, including House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, have argued for months that Obama should not have invoked his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect the site.
Hatch, who met with Trump Thursday, said Friday that he had spoken with Trump “and one of the issues I raised very strongly was Bears Ears.” In a statement, he noted the president’s interior secretary nominee, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), has already pledged “that his first trip after confirmation would be to Utah to get right to work with us on addressing this travesty.”
“As secretary of the Interior, Zinke will play a key role in this fight, but in the end, changes to a national monument have to come from the president himself,” Hatch said. “That’s why I raised it with the president directly.”
The senator continued: “And not only is he willing to listen, he’s eager to work with me to address this.”
Bishop and Chaffetz have also been pressing the issue with the administration, including before Trump actually took office. In an interview earlier this week, Chaffetz said he hoped to address some of the national monuments Obama had created but was waiting to hear more from the new administration on the matter.
Tribal leaders and conservation advocates quickly condemned the idea of removing the area’s monument status, arguing it had taken nearly a decade to secure the new safeguards.
Davis Filfred, a Navajo Nation Council delegate and official representative to Utah, said in an interview that while the tribes were prepared to go to court over the issue, the back-and-forth felt like “a tug of war” they would rather avoid.
“I’m just trying to preserve my people through my culture and heritage, and I wish people would come out and see the land, the beauty of it,” Filfred said. “We just want our voices heard. They shouldn’t just do this behind closed doors.”
Both Filfred and Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, said they welcomed the fact that Zinke would be traveling to Utah soon and hoped he would meet with a wide range of residents during his trip. Former interior secretary Sally Jewell traveled to Bears Ears last year to take a hike there and hold a public listening session with both supporters and opponents of a national monument designation.
“We hope his visit to Bears Ears helps him understand the importance of this area being permanently protected, as virtually everyone has agreed,” Ewing said in an email. “If elected officials, such as Senator Hatch, want to see that happen in another manner than a monument, the congressional path and authority to do that is crystal clear – a bill that can garner bipartisan support has to be created and passed.”
While Congress has wide latitude to change national monument designations, it is rare for a president to do so. In a few instances, presidents have modified the size of monuments established by their predecessors: Woodrow Wilson slashed nearly half the acreage of Mount Olympus National Monument, which Theodore Roosevelt had established. But in 1938, the U.S. attorney general wrote a formal opinion saying the Antiquities Act authorized a president to establish a monument but did not grant a president the right to abolish one.