US Interior secretary to get aerial tour of Utah monument


SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday will get a bird’s-eye view of one of America’s newest national monuments as he flies over 1.3 million acres of southern Utah’s red rock plateaus, cliffs and canyons graced with sagebrush, juniper trees and ancient cliff dwellings.

Zinke and Utah’s governor are scheduled to spend the morning touring Bears Ears National Monument by helicopter as the Interior secretary sets out on day two of a four-day Utah visit to re-assess two vast national monuments.

The two Republicans were expected to hold a news conference Monday afternoon before hiking up to the House on Fire, a ruin within the monument.

The re-evaluation of the new Bears Ears National Monument on sacred tribal lands and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created in 1996, is part of an executive order signed last month by President Donald Trump calling for a review of 27 national monuments established by several former presidents.

The Bears Ears monument, a source of ire for Utah’s conservative leadership, is a priority in the review.

Zinke has been tasked with making a recommendation on the monument by June 10, about 2½ months before a final report about all the monuments.

“I’m coming in this thing as a Montanan, a former congressman and now the secretary of the Interior without any predispositions of outcome,” Zinke said at a news conference Sunday evening in Salt Lake City. “I want to make sure that the public has a voice, that the elected officials have a voice.”

Utah Republican leaders, led by Hatch, campaigned hard to get Trump to take a second look a monument designated by President Barack Obama near the end of his term.

Hatch and others contend the monument designation is a layer of unnecessary federal control that hurts local economies by closing the area to new energy development.

Hatch, who appeared with Zinke at the Sunday news conference, said he is grateful the Interior secretary was making the visit.

“He understands that there are two sides. Maybe more than two sides,” Hatch said.

Zinke spoke to reporters shortly after holding a closed-door meeting with a coalition of tribal leaders who pushed for the monument. Bears Ears marked the first time they had a seat at the table when it comes to land management, Zinke said.

Outside, about 500 protesters carrying signs changed “Save our monuments, stand with Bears Ears.”

Zinke said he views the trip as a listening tour and wants to determine if the monuments fit the federal law allowing presidents to declare the protections. He said it’s possible he may not recommend the monuments be made smaller or rescinded, and he might even recommend an addition to the monument.

On Tuesday, he plans to tour the area on horseback.

“I think, sometimes, the best way to see things is slow and easy with a horse,” Zinke said, mentioning his horseback commute through the streets of Washington, D.C., on his first day on the job in March.

On Wednesday, he’ll be in the area near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The monument review is rooted in the belief of Trump and other critics that a law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt allowing presidents to declare monuments has been improperly used to protect wide expanses of lands instead of places with particular historical or archaeological value.

Grand Staircase-Escalante is 1.9 million acres (7,700 square kilometers), about the size of Delaware. Bears Ears is a bit smaller at 1.3 million acres (5,300 square kilometers).

Zinke on Sunday spoke of his admiration for Roosevelt and said “it is undisputed the monuments have been an effective tool to save, preserve our greatest cultural treasures.” He noted that the first ever monument designation in 1906, Wyoming’s Devils Tower, was also contentious.

Conservation groups contend that the monument review puts in limbo protections on large swaths of land that are home to ancient cliff dwellings, towering Sequoias, deep canyons and ocean habitats where seals, whales and sea turtles roam.

Environmental groups have vowed to file lawsuits if Trump attempts to rescind monuments, which would be unprecedented.

Congress might weigh in as well. Numerous bills on the issue were introduced in the previous session, including measures to prevent the president from establishing or expanding monuments in particular states and to require the consent of Congress or state legislatures.