This post has been updated.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended President Trump “revise the existing boundaries” of the Bears Ears National Historic Monument and call on Congress to dictate the terms of how parts of the area should be managed.
Native American and environmental groups immediately threatened to sue should Trump follow the recommendation.
In an interim report Zinke gave to the White House on Saturday, he proposed Trump ask Congress to give tribal officials authority to co-manage “designated cultural resources” in the area and “make more appropriate conservation designations” within an area that President Barack Obama formally protected in southeastern Utah late last year.
But Zinke suggested holding off on any final decision until a full review of 27 national monuments designated by Trump’s predecessors is completed. Trump signed an executive order in April ordering Zinke to conduct the 120-day review, and he instructed the secretary to first report back on Bears Ears, a 1.35-million-acre site Obama designated in December under the 1906 Antiquities Act.
A coalition of tribes, environmentalists, outdoor recreation businesses and academics had pressed for the designation because some of the area’s more than 100,000 archaeological sites have been damaged in recent years by vandalism, off-road vehicle use and looting. Gov. Gary R. Herbert and Utah’s congressional delegation, all Republicans, argued that lawmakers should determine the boundaries of any monument rather than the White House.
In speaking with reporters on Monday, Zinke emphasized that “the recommendations were not made in a bubble in Washington, D.C.” but determined after “we traveled by air, by car, by foot and by horseback.” He said the current boundaries do not accord with the 1906 law’s provision that any designation be confined to “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
“If you look at the Bears Ears as a whole, there’s a lot more drop-dead gorgeous land than there are historic, prehistoric objects,” the secretary said, adding that he could not provide a specific acreage estimate because it would depend on how Congress would draw the new lines. Referring to the area’s key historic sites and structures, he maintained that “these items and objects can be identified, segregated and reasonably separated.”
During the afternoon news conference, Zinke said he and a deputy assistant spoke with Native leaders, a majority of whom support the Bears Ears designation and fought the monument’s review at every step. “Overall, in talking to tribal leadership… they’re pretty happy and willing to work with us,” he said.
The statement brought a quick rebuke from representatives of the Navajo Nation. “I haven’t been happy with him since day one,” said Davis Filfred. “I don’t know what that word happy is.”
Filfred said he told Zinke, and later his assistant, whom the secretary did not name, that the coalition of Ute, Navajo, Hopi and Zuni tribe leaders who fought 10 years for a monument designation wanted no change. He said Zinke is apparently speaking with the leader of a small Navajo faction that opposed the monument but isn’t part of the nation’s leadership.
“We don’t want it to be rescinded,” Filfred said. “We wanted it left alone. Right now, what I’m hearing is this is only a recommendation. But when they do make that move, we’re ready as a Navajo nation for a lawsuit, and all the other tribal leaders are ready. We have others who are ready for litigation. This is uncalled for.”
The proposal also drew sharp criticism from environmental and outdoors’ groups but praise from Utah Republicans.
National Wildlife Federation president and CEO Collin O’Mara, who participated in a signing ceremony at Zinke’s office during his first day on the job, said in a statement that the administration solicited public input on the matter and heard “more than a million hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts from Utah and the entire country loudly proclaiming Bears Ears deserves protection. For the Administration to then ignore that broad showing of support and recommend reducing the boundaries of Bears Ears is both disappointing and baffling.”
Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney for the Rocky Mountains office of Earthjustice, said the environmental law firm’s attorneys were readying a lawsuit to challenge the recommendations. “Make no mistake: Unilaterally shrinking the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument would not only be a slap in the face to the five sovereign tribes who share sacred ties to this land, it would violate both the Antiquities Act and the separation of powers doctrine.”
The secretary traveled last month to the Bears Ears site, which lies within Utah’s San Juan County, to listen to the state’s politicians and nearby residents who opposed the designation. He also met for a shorter time with supporters of the site.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) called the plan “an unquestionable victory for Utah.”
“This recommendation reflects a balance of our shared priorities of protecting this land and the antiquities that are found on it while still preserving local involvement, and taking into consideration the needs of the local communities,” Hatch said.
It remains unclear how soon Congress might act to pass legislation to give the tribes authority to co-manage the area and whether such a bill would be paired with one changing the site’s management plan. Zinke has proposed designating some of the existing monument as “national recreation areas” or “national conservation areas,” but a measure that provided this sort of guidance stalled last year in the House. Moreover, officials from both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have testified previously that any national conservation area designations “should not diminish the protections that currently apply to the lands.”
Zinke expressed optimism that the tribes would embrace a proposal that “is about sovereignty respect and self-determination” and that legislation could make it through Congress without much difficulty.
“I would give it one word: President Trump,” he said when asked about the bill’s prospects.