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U.S. Forest Service didn’t call for pulling its land from Bears Ears, USDA nominee tells Senate Democrats

Two senior Senate Democrats want President Trump to explain why he’s poised to remove protections for U.S. Forest Service land in the Bears Ears National Monument when the agency did not recommend any such change, according to a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.), the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture subcommittee on conservation, forestry and natural resources, made the inquiry Friday after Trump’s nominee to serve as U.S. Department of Agriculture general counsel informed them that the department had not recommended the Interior Department remove any Forest Service acreage from existing national monuments.

There are 289,000 acres of Forest Service land currently in Utah’s Bears Ears, which Trump is poised to shrink Monday by as much as 85 percent, according to draft documents obtained by the Post. Some of that land would be affected under the draft maps Interior has prepared, though officials have cautioned that the final boundaries could still be changed before Trump issues a proclamation on Monday.

Under the 1906 Antiquities Act, presidents can unilaterally designate national monuments on federal land or in federal waters if they conclude these areas are under threat. A national monument can be comprised of land from multiple jurisdictions. Forest Service land falls under USDA, while National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management acreage falls under Interior. Federal waters are typically managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is part of the Commerce Department.

In a letter to Trump, Stabenow and Bennet write that any effort to remove Forest Service land from either Bears Ears or four California national monuments under review would be at odds with the agency’s own recommendations to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Trump had asked Zinke to reassess the status of more than two dozen monuments established since 1996. In his report, which the White House has refused to release since its submission in August, Zinke recommended cutting the size of at least four sites and changing the way at least a half-dozen more are managed.

The senators note that USDA nominee Stephen Vaden “indicated that USDA’s submissions to DOI were sent without a recommendation for removing Forest Service acreage from the monuments under review.” And in response to specific questions about Forest Service acres that USDA might have identified for removal, their letter says, “Mr. Vaden reiterated that, ‘No specific acres were recommended.’”

Trump and his deputies have argued that many of the national monuments designated by previous presidents under the 1906 Antiquities Act were overly broad given what needed to be protected. One of the most contentious has been the 1.35 million-acres Bears Ears, which President Barack Obama established nearly a year ago to safeguard tens of thousands of ancestral Pueblo archaeological sites as well as rock art and areas where tribes continue to conduct ceremonies.

In their letter, Stabenow and Bennet ask Trump to answer a series of questions by Dec. 15 on which acres of Forest Service land he intends to remove from monument status in Bears Ears and the four California national monuments under scrutiny. Those include Berryessa Snow Mountain, San Gabriel Mountains, Giant Sequoia and Sand to Snow national monuments.

Several legal scholars believe Trump lacks the legal authority to change national monument boundaries. The lawmakers ask him to address the issue and to “please provide a citation for any such legal authority.”

USDA could not be reached Friday for comment on the letter.

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