Democratic presidents established the two national monuments in southern Utah under the 1906 Antiquities Act, and both of them have generated considerable controversy. Barack Obama last December established Bears Ears, a 1.35 million-acre expanse that is home to tens of thousands of ancestral Pueblo archaeological sites, while Bill Clinton designated the nearly 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended scaling back both monuments, along with several others, as part of a report he delivered to the White House in August. Since that time, White House officials have been working with staff at the Interior and Justice departments to draft proclamations that they think have the best chance of withstanding an inevitable court challenge from conservation and tribal groups, according to a senior administration official.
White House spokeswoman Kelly Love said in an email Tuesday that she had “no announcements at this time” to make about the president’s travel plans to Utah.
While administration officials have not announced how much Trump plans to reduce either monument, they have privately indicated that he intends to shave hundreds of thousands of acres off both. Trump signed an executive order in April instructing Zinke to scrutinize any national monument larger than 100,000 acres that has been established in the past 21 years, saying at the time that his administration would “end these abuses and return control to the people, the people of all of the states, the people of the United States.”
The president will reduce Bears Ears by more than 1 million acres, Interior Department officials have informed multiple individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record. And Ron Dean, an aide to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), testified before the Utah legislature’s Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands in November that “Grand Staircase will probably be somewhere between 700,000 acres and 1.2 million” under the revised designation.
State and local officials, nearly all of whom are Republicans, fought the designation of Bears Ears as a national monument and lobbied the Trump administration to either rescind it altogether or scale it back significantly.
“We’re extremely grateful for the president’s visit, and the [interior] secretary’s work that led up to this visit,” San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman (R) said in an interview Tuesday. “We feel like we’ve been listened to, and that means a lot to us.”
Trump does not intend to visit the monuments themselves, individuals briefed on the plans said, but will instead travel to Salt Lake City.
Environmentalists quickly decried the move to shrink the monuments and vowed to block it through litigation.
“This illegal action will cement Trump’s legacy as one of the worst presidents in modern history,” said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity. “Trump has no clue how much people love these sacred and irreplaceable landscapes, but he’s about to find out. He’s shown his blatant disregard for public lands, Native Americans and the law. We look forward to seeing him in court.”
Trump’s effort to cut Grand Staircase-Escalante may face a serious legal obstacle because Congress passed legislation in 1998 that ratified a land exchange between the federal government and Utah as part of the monument’s designation and modified its boundaries slightly. The federal land that Utah acquired has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in state revenue over the past two decades, including $1.5 million in monthly royalties from coal bed methane development for more than 10 years.
The push to scale back the monuments has sparked opposition even from those conservation groups that sought to work with Zinke at the outset of his tenure.
The Nature Conservancy is the largest private landowner within Bears Ears, and its staff took the secretary on a tour of its property when he visited the monument this past summer. In a statement Tuesday, Conservancy president and chief executive Mark Tercek said that “we do not support modifying any national monument designations” and that Bears Ears “should remain as is.”
“Bears Ears National Monument was established after Congress failed to protect the area through legislative means,” Tercek said. “It is now time to move forward to develop and implement the management plan called for by the original Bears Ears proclamation. This path forward serves the best interests of this resource and the nation.”
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers President Land Tawney, who had supported Zinke’s confirmation, said he and Trump were defying the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican president who ushered the Antiquities Act into law.
“Public lands sportsmen and women already have made clear our position: We will not stand for this sellout to industry. An attack on one monument is an attack on them all.”
The administration is in the process of drafting other proclamations under the Antiquities Act that would alter the size of some national monuments and change the way others are managed. Those proclamations will be issued over a period of several weeks after the Utah trip, a senior administration official said.
San Juan County Commission Chairman Bruce Adams said in an interview Tuesday that changing the size of Bears Ears was only “half the race,” because he and others want Congress to limit the president’s authority to designate protections on federal land under the Antiquities Act.
Adams noted that more than half of the county’s land is federally owned and another quarter is made up of Navajo reservation land, thereby restraining local officials’ ability to raise money through private property taxes.
“We don’t want to have to go down this road every four years, in San Juan County or in the state of Utah,” Adams said. “We’re challenged with providing services for 5 million acres, whether we get revenue from those 5 million acres or not.”