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Trump shrinks two huge national monuments in Utah, drawing praise and protests

During a speech in Salt Lake City on Dec. 4, President Trump said he will shrink Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump on Monday drastically scaled back two national monuments established in Utah by his Democratic predecessors, the largest reduction of public-lands protection in U.S. history.

Trump's move to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments by more than 1.1 million acres and more than 800,000 acres, respectively, immediately sparked an outpouring of praise from conservative lawmakers as well as protests by activists outside the White House and in Utah. The changes plunge the Trump administration into uncharted legal territory, as no president has sought to modify monuments established under the 1906 Antiquities Act in more than half a century.

His decision removes about 85 percent of the designation of Bears Ears and nearly 46 percent of that for Grand Staircase-Escalante, land that potentially could now be leased for energy exploration or opened for specific activities such as motorized vehicle use.

Trump told a rally in Salt Lake City that he came to “reverse federal overreach” and took dramatic action “because some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington. And guess what? They’re wrong.”

“They don’t know your land, and truly, they don’t care for your land like you do,” he said. “But from now on, that won’t matter.”

The two proclamations are the first in a series of major changes Trump intends to make to numerous monuments, which range from a forested patch of the Pacific Northwest to a stretch of the Atlantic Ocean off New England.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has reviewed more than two dozen sites established by Democratic and Republican presidents under an executive order Trump signed in April, said he would release his report on the study Tuesday.

Zinke has recommended downsizing Oregon's Cascade-
Siskiyou and Nevada's Gold Butte national monuments and shifting the way several others are managed, according to a copy obtained by The Washington Post. If these revisions are successfully sustained in court, they would redefine not only how existing public lands are protected but the extent to which future presidents could dictate that they remain untouched.

Conservatives have long sought to curb a president’s unilateral power to safeguard federal lands and waters under the law, a practice that both Democrats and Republicans have pursued since it was enacted under Theodore Roosevelt. The issue has been a particular flash point in the West, where some residents think the federal government already imposes too many restrictions on development, and others, including tribal officials, believe greater protections of ancient sites are needed.

Even before Trump made the announcement as part of a day trip to the state, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Craig Uden was hailing the resized designations. While grazing has continued on both monuments, as well as on others, Uden said ranchers could not have greater input into how the areas are managed.

“We are grateful that today’s action will allow ranchers to resume their role as responsible stewards of the land and drivers of rural economies,” he said.

Republicans at the president's rally applauded him and his deputies for heeding their concerns. "President Trump listened to us," Utah House Speaker Gregory Hughes (R) said. "We are not a flyover state."

A look at Bears Ears monument, which encompasses 1.35 million acres of land in Utah. (Video: The Wilderness Society)

Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) characterized the action as “an opportunity to push a reset button on these areas” and derided as myth “this idea that somehow there will be some wholesale development” on lands removed from the designation. “There is a lot of scaremongering” about future oil derricks and natural gas wells, he said, but “the only thing that smacks of energy is the uranium” that will now become available near Bears Ears and coal near Grand Staircase-Escalante.

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Protests that opponents began over the weekend, attracting thousands, continued Monday at the Utah Capitol. About 300 demonstrators gathered before Trump arrived and, against the backdrop of the dome and snowy grounds, chanted "Lock him up!"

Conservation advocates and tribal representatives have for months been preparing legal briefs that aim to block the monument changes in federal court.

After Trump signed the two proclamations, the Ute Indian Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni announced they would file suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to challenge the action on Bears Ears. A coalition of eight environmental groups, represented by Earthjustice, sued late in the day over Grand Staircase-Escalante.

“We’re going to fight this,” Jonathan Nez, Navajo Nation vice president, told reporters Monday.

Douglas Wheeler, a partner at the firm Hogan Lovells who represents the Conservation Lands Foundation, Utah Diné Bikéyah and other groups, said the “watershed” moment on the issue came with the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act. “Congress made very clear, as a matter of law, that they intend to delegate only that which has been expressly delegated in terms of management of federal lands,” he said — which would mean a president can establish a monument under the Antiquities Act but not “rescind or substantially reduce” a site.

Yet Todd Gaziano, executive director of the Pacific Legal Foundation's office in Washington, D.C., argues that Trump can act unilaterally: "There are many hard or uncertain questions in the law, but this is not one of them," Gaziano said in a statement.

Despite this legal uncertainty, Trump and his deputies have worked to address the concerns raised by Utah politicians such as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) and executives in the mining, ranching and oil and gas industries.

Zinke held public events at multiple locations, but the review decision-making process was largely contained to a handful of top staffers at Interior and the White House. Zinke’s aides have had only minimal consultations with Bureau of Land Management field office staff members in Utah, according to individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

While both Utah monuments have drawn criticism, they have simultaneously boosted local tourism. Grand Staircase-Escalante also has spurred significant scientific discoveries.

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Grand Staircase’s Kaiparowits Plateau ranks as one of the most important examples of the Mesozoic Era, when dinosaurs roamed the area, according to David Polly, president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Nearly half of the plateau falls outside the new boundaries, Polly noted in an interview — including nearly all of the Tropic Shale, a roughly 94 million-year-old swath of rock that the new proclamation identifies as a protected object.

Bears Ears, by contrast, is best known for tens of thousands of relatively intact archaeological sites and petroglyphs within its boundaries. Some date from the ancestral Pueblo era, and many tribal members continue to visit the area regularly to conduct rituals as well as to gather herbs and firewood.

A senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the push to change the monument designations was driven by Hatch; Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee; and Zinke.

Hatch has raised the issue of the two Utah sites repeatedly with both the president and his eldest son, not just during the 2016 campaign but also during his visit to the Oval Office on Trump's fifth day in office.

Trump "really likes" Hatch, the White House official said, because he supports his agenda, defends him on TV, praises his children and has a sense of humor. He appreciates his work on the Senate's tax overhaul bill, the aide added, and is hoping the 83-year-old incumbent will run for reelection next year rather than provide an opening for Trump political rival Mitt Romney.

The president, who updated Hatch personally on the process, brought him along on Monday's trip on Air Force One and agreed to meet with leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City at Hatch's request.

Both Trump and Zinke implied Monday that monument designations had impeded public access. "Our public land is for the public to use, not special interests," Zinke said.

But Amy Roberts, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association, said in an interview that the notion "is flat-out wrong" and that business has thrived in the 20 years since Grand Staircase-Escalante was created as a monument.

“Unfortunately, there’s a risk now that those people’s livelihoods are going to be threatened as people hear the monument’s cut in half and wonder whether it’s worth visiting,” she said.

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San Juan County Commission Chairman Bruce Adams, who opposed the Bears Ears designation, said last week that he hoped the tourism boost his county had experienced in the past year would continue. "Whoever's in charge of managing the monument will come up with some places for people to visit, and visit respectfully."

Even less clear is whether changing the monuments' boundaries will spur extractive activities. The BLM was in the process of drafting an environmental-impact statement on opening up a coal mining operation on public land near Kanab when Clinton established Grand Staircase-Escalante. At the time, the bureau found it would be difficult to transport the coal to market given the site's remoteness and the fact that it included hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness study areas that prohibited road construction.

And while there are nearly two dozen existing oil and gas leases within the Bears Ears boundaries that Obama designated, a well hasn't been drilled there for a quarter of a century.

According to two senior administration officials, the question of how to treat existing monuments has not received significant attention in the White House, which has been focused on taxes. White House official Ty Cobb, who served as the president's attorney and once served as chairman of the Grand Canyon Trust, has opposed the reductions.

Eilperin reported from Washington.