President Donald Trump plans to shrink the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments in Utah, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said Friday, a change that will open parts of them to drilling and mining but which environmental groups and Native Americans are vowing to fight.
Trump will visit Utah in December to announce his decision to reduce the boundaries of the two national monuments. Shrinking the size of national monument areas reflects the Trump administration’s broader effort to boost energy development and mining on federal lands while rolling back Obama-era environmental and conservation efforts.
Environmental groups pledged to wage a legal battle against the Trump administration’s attempt to reduce the size of the national monuments. “We will fight any illegal attempt by this administration to turn our national treasures over to private interests for polluters’ profits,” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement Friday. “It is a disgrace that the president wants to undo the nation’s first national monument created to honor Native American cultural heritage.”
Hatch, in a statement, said the Trump administration “rolled up their sleeves to dig in, talk to locals, talk to local tribes and find a better way to do it.”
But Native American groups accused Hatch of lying about tribal views on the national monuments in Utah. “It’s completely false,” Natalie Landreth, attorney with Native American Rights Fund, said of Hatch’s statement. “The tribes are on record over and over and over again saying, ‘Don’t touch it.’”
“The tribes will be suing immediately, and we already have a complaint ready to go,” Landreth told the Salt Lake City Weekly.
Leaders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition expressed outrage in August over reports that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended to Trump that he make dramatic reductions to Bears Ears National Monument. “The designation of Bears Ears National Monument was a celebratory moment where our voice was finally heard, and our cultural and spiritual heritage was respected,” said Davis Filfred, Navajo Nation Council Delegate. “Our Tribes stand together and are willing to go into battle in terms of litigation and we are here to fight for our monument.”
The Friday announcement about the Utah national monuments came the same week that Trump reiterated his support for protecting Confederate monuments, tweeting that Ed Gillespie, Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, would “save our great statues/heritage.” Zinke has also repeatedly defended Confederate monuments, arguing they can’t be taken down because “native Indians” might begin to question other statues, Jesse Prentice-Dunn, advocacy director for the Center for Western Priorities, a nonprofit conservation group, wrote in a blog post Friday.
In a memo to the White House, released in September, Zinke recommended unspecified boundary changes to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante monuments, the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada, and the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon. President Barack Obama designated the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears area as a national monument just before leaving office, while the 1.8-million-acre Grand Staircase Escalante was designated a national monument by Bill Clinton in 1996.
“President Trump and Ryan Zinke’s attack on the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is an attack on southern Utah’s entrepreneurs and the thousands of jobs that depend on the Monument,” Suzanne Catlett, president of the Escalante and Boulder Utah Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “The utter disregard for our thriving community and the views of local business owners like me, shows that President Trump could care less about jobs in rural America.”
Hatch’s office emailed a statement to Reuters on Friday saying the senator “was incredibly grateful the president called this morning to let us know that he is approving Secretary Zinke’s recommendation on Bears Ears.” The statement did not provide details on the exact changes to the boundaries or the legal mechanism the administration might use to make the changes, the news agency reported.
Many legal scholars contend presidents lack legal authority to shrink the size of monuments established by their predecessors and that only Congress can take such an action.
— Western Priorities (@WstrnPriorities) October 27, 2017
In May, Hatch made condescending remarks about Native Americans when he was speaking alongside Zinke about the Trump administration’s order to review nearly 30 national monuments. Hatch said Native Americans were “manipulated” into their support for the 1.35 million acre Bears Ears National Monument southeastern Utah. “The Indians, they don’t fully understand that a lot of the things that they currently take for granted on those lands, they won’t be able to do if it’s made clearly into a monument or a wilderness,” Hatch said.
The Utah delegation has pressured Trump for months to shrink both sites. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), recently introduced a bill that creates presidential authority to shrink or eliminate monuments, an admission that no such power currently exists, contended Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. The Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the authority to create monuments, has never had any language allowing presidents to shrink them, Grijalva said in a statement Friday.