Zinke “Listens”

After the Interior Secretary’s tour of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments, Proponents say their voice has been anything but heard.


In a video long on white guys in cowboy hats, the U.S. Department of the Interior has documented Secretary Ryan Zinke’s early May visit to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase/Escalante national monuments in southern Utah.

Over a heartwarming soundtrack, and slow motion imagery of a horse-mounted posse, the Secretary’s voice intones, “We as a country have to come together because it is all of our land.” The video also features short clips of Zinke on horseback, climbing a ladder out of an ancient Anasazi kiva, touring the Edge of the Cedars Museum, and talking with Native Americans. “We want to make sure everyone’s voice is heard,” the Secretary says.

The video’s message is clear. Interior Secretary Zinke has made a thorough and all-inclusive review of the two large monuments in southern Utah, while taking into account all of the various voices and opinions surrounding them. The video preceded what many monument proponents feared was already a foregone conclusion – Zinke’s recommendation that the monument size be reduced – and they say that in spite of overwhelming numbers, their voices have been anything but heard. The much-anticipated trip to southern Utah was the result of an executive order, issued by President Donald Trump in April. The order directs the Secretary to review all monuments designated by presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act between January 1, 1996, and the present date that are 100,000 acres or more in size, or any monument the Secretary deems to have been created without appropriate public input.



The date of January 1, 1996 was not chosen at random. On September 18 of the same year, then President Bill Clinton created the 1.8-million-acre Grand Staircase National Monument in Kane and Garfield counties. Utah politicians and many rural residents opposed to the designation have been seething ever sense, and they viewed outgoing President Obama’s creation of Bears Ears in December, 2016 as salt in the wound.

In a press release posted on the Interior Department’s website, Secretary Zinke said “I spent a lot of time on the ground in Utah, talking with people and understanding the natural and cultural significance of the area. There is no doubt that it is drop-dead gorgeous country and that it merits some degree of protection, but designating a monument that – including state land – encompasses almost 1.5 million-acres where multiple-use management is hindered or prohibited is not the best use of the land and is not in accordance with the intention of the Antiquities Act.”


Executive Director for Grand Canyon Trust Bill Hedden said that during Zinke’s four-day tour of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, he spent about three hours with monument supporters and tribal representatives. Grand Canyon Trust is a non-profit conservation organization that, along with Utah Dine’ Bikeyah, and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition were the leading proponents for the creation of Bears Ears National Monument.

According to Hedden, Zinke spent most of his time with anti-monument members of the San Juan County commission, staff of the Utah delegation and governor’s office, and state legislator Mike Noel who, in the lead up to the creation of Bears Ears, told the Salt Lake Tribune that badgers were responsible for the looting of archaeological resources in the area. “While traveling with all those monument opponents he refused to meet with the chambers of commerce from Boulder-Escalante and Kanab and he met with no environmental representatives.” Hedden said. “In fact, as bad as the balance was on Bears Ears, one cannot think of a single supporter of Grand Staircase-Escalante he met with. This is not an even handed review.”


The Boulder-Escalante chamber of commerce sent a letter to Zinke inviting him, and all Utah leaders to visit with their members during his review. The letter details the upturn in economic growth they attribute to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. “Please do not ignore the local businesses who would urge you, Mr. Secretary, to leave Grand Staircase and Bears Ears as they are,” the letter states. “After all, a review of our national monuments is effective only if it is fair, balanced and truly examines the success of our national monuments. Americans would settle for nothing less.”

Zinke also traveled with Matt Anderson, a policy analyst for the Salt Lake City based Sutherland Institute. Sutherland, which has funding ties to Koch Industries, conceived a letter on June 1, that was cosigned by 30 organizations including the American Energy Alliance, the Montana Policy Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Mississippi Center for Public Policy. “We applaud your decision to review the national monuments designated over the past 21 years and check years of executive overreach related to federal lands,” the letter states. “This action is welcome news for locals whose voices have been drowned out by environmental groups, corporate interests and other special interests.”


In addition to assertions that Zinke spent a disproportionate amount of time with monument opponents, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) charges that the secretary met in unlawful, closed door meetings with commissioners from San Juan, Garfield and Kane counties in violation of Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act. SUWA asserts that San Juan County commissioners met with Secretary Zinke in Washington, D.C. on May 2 and June 5, and in Utah on May 8 and 9, and that Garfield and Kane County Commissioners met with Secretary Zinke in Utah on May 10.

SUWA said in a statement that the repeated secret meetings with Secretary Zinke and other government officials about Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments are completely at odds with the public meetings act, which is designed to insure that public business is conducted in the open. “SUWA members in these three counties have an intense interest in protecting our state’s national monuments and would have attended these meetings and vocally advocated for their protection had they known about them,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “The commissions’ decision to operate under cover of darkness is unlawful and cannot continue.”


By contrast, former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s visit to the region in July of 2016, began at an open meeting of the Grand County Council in Moab. Jewell said that she “was here to listen.” She then went on to a public meeting of the San Juan County Commission in Monticello; toured the Bears Ears region by car and by foot, hiking four miles into Moon House ruin in the 100-degree heat; and ended the trip with a town hall meeting in Bluff that was attended by nearly 2000 people. And in spite of claims made by the Utah delegation of a last minute, “midnight monument,” the Obama administration had long been engaged in talks with Utah representatives. In fact, Obama had assured Utah politicians that if Republican Congressman Rob Bishop could pass his Utah Public Lands Initiative (PLI), he wouldn’t create a national monument in southeastern Utah.

The PLI was a years-in-the-making, stakeholder driven process that sought to reconcile development with conservation on Utah’s federal public lands. Requiring Congressional approval, the initiative would have established national conservation and recreation areas, Wilderness and so-called energy zones. Conservationists derided the initiative as a give-away for the fossil fuel industry, and Bishop failed to bring the bill up to the House of Representatives before the end of Obama’s term.

In the final analysis, and in spite of claims to the contrary, the boundaries for the 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument closely resemble the draft boundaries put forth for protection in the PLI. Areas that included the greatest potential for resource development were left out including Red Canyon, a few miles southwest of Natural Bridges National Monument, where Energy Fuels Resources plans to expand its Daneros uranium mine. Other areas of federal land near the towns of Bluff, and Mexican Hat, were left out because of their potential for oil and gas development.

Zinke, in his interim recommendation, envisions a much smaller “right sized,” and fragmented monument that would protect individual archaeological and cultural sites in isolation rather than in terms of an all-encompassing landscape. Which sites to choose for protection would be no small task given that more than 100,000 are scattered from one end of the region to the other.


The Secretary’s report goes on to recommend that Congress should designate national conservation and recreation areas within the current monument boundaries; clarify the intent of management practices for Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas; and finally, seek congressional authority that would enable tribal co-management of designated cultural areas within the monument boundaries. “Co-management will be absolutely key going forward and I recommend that the monument, and especially the areas of significant cultural interest, be co-managed by the Tribal nations,” Zinke said. “I am grateful representatives from the Tribal governments met with me in Utah and am optimistic for our future.”

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition however, is not so optimistic. In response to Zinke’s interim report, the coalition issued a blistering statement condemning the Secretary’s intentions to “eviscerate” the monument. The coalition consists of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of the Zuni and the Ute Indian Tribe, all of whom have ancestral if not modern cultural ties to the Bears Ears region. “For us, Bears Ears is a homeland. It always has been and still is. The radical idea of breaking up Bears Ears National Monument is a slap in the face to the members of our Tribes and an affront to Indian people all across the country. The Bears Ears region is not a series of isolated objects, but the object itself, a connected, living landscape, where the place, not a collection of items, must be protected. You cannot reduce the size without harming the whole.”


Utah Dine’ Bikeyah, a non-profit organization that supports indigenous people in protecting their culturally significant, ancestral lands issued a similar statement. “We are deeply upset at Secretary Zinke’s announcement today. The Secretary failed to take the time to listen to the very people who know best what is at stake at Bears Ears and ignored overwhelming support in Utah for the monument.”

The end of the video closes with a statement proclaiming that for the first time in history, a public comment period was held over a national monument. In the interim report Zinke said that the Department of the Interior received approximately 76,500 comments of diverse opinion. “Comments expressed a wide variety of views on the Bears Ears National Monument, however federal and state elected officials from Utah strongly oppose the current boundary,” the report states.


Hedden cries foul on the interior department’s numbers and their refusal to acknowledge the overwhelming percentage of pro-monument comments. “DOI got about a million comments that ran 96-4 in favor of the monuments, yet they decided to aggregate supporting comments in such a way that they are reporting just 76,000 total.” Hedden said that the Interior Department’s decision to extend the comment period merely reflects their desire to obtain more comments opposed.

An early analysis from the Center for Western Priorities, as reported in the media outlet Westwise, showed that out of a random sample of more than 90,000 comments received by the Department of the Interior, 96 percent expressed support for national monuments. Nearly half of those comments referred to Bears Ears specifically with a similar ratio of support. Additionally, a survey revealed that advocacy groups had assembled an additional 685,000 pro- Bears Ears comments, but that when grouped together to be uploaded to regulations.gov each bundle was only counted as one comment.


Secretary Zinke’s department however, is putting forth the notion that his review is a good faith effort that is taking all voices into account, while simultaneously stressing the idea that locals deserve to have a say in what happens with the federal land that surrounds their communities. “Local input is absolutely critical when it comes to federal land management decisions and as such, I’m extending the public comment period for Bears Ears. I want every advocate to have their voice heard,” Zinke said. But with anti-federal government rhetoric ringing at an all-time high in the West, and with the political fervor surrounding the monuments, proponents are wondering if their voice will simply fall on deaf ears.


Comments on Bears Ears National Monument can be submitted to regulations.gov through July 10.

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