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After meeting with President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the Interior Department on Thursday, Sen. Orrin Hatch said he sees in the nominee a potential partner to "help us clean up the mess the Obama administration created" with designation of the Bears Ears National Monument.
Hatch says his support for Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, to be confirmed as interior secretary is contingent upon the congressman's commitment to "repair much of the damage caused" by the monument designation.
"After meeting with Secretary-designate Zinke today, I am confident that the new administration will work with us to right this wrong," Hatch, R-Utah, said in a prepared statement.
Zinke also told Hatch his first trip on the job would be to Utah to speak with the state's congressional delegation and residents of San Juan County, according to the senator.
Hatch and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, are co-sponsoring a bill that would limit the president's executive powers granted in the 1906 Antiquities Act. It wouldn't repeal the Bears Ears monument which they hope Trump's administration will do but would require state and congressional approval for future sites.
The two senators, as well as all four of Utah's House members, staunchly opposed the designation when it was announced by President Barack Obama on Dec. 28. Hatch called it an "astonishing and egregious abuse of executive power."
Obama's order encapsulates 1.35 million acres of public lands surrounding San Juan County's Cedar Mesa and was enacted at the behest of five American Indian tribes with ancestral and spiritual ties to the area. Its proclamation preserves existing rights to drill, mine and graze within the area, to be administered by the Bureau of Land Management, while preserving cultural sites.
Hatch said he appreciated "Zinke's willingness to act in good faith" in the matter, but did not cite any specific commitment.
Zinke has previously been a vocal opponent of Republican efforts to transfer ownership of federal public lands. Last year, he voted against a bill to sell 2 million acres of federal land to state ownership, stating at the time: "The federal government needs to do a better job of managing our resources, but the sale or transfer of our land is an extreme proposal, and I won't tolerate it."
He even resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Convention last summer because of the GOP platform's support of selling federal acreage. Environmental groups, while hailing Zinke's stand against the transfer of federal lands, don't believe he has a clean record; they worry about his support of energy development and logging on public lands.
If confirmed as interior secretary, he would oversee 500 million acres of public lands and 2 billion acres on the outer continental shelf.
In addition to discussion of national monuments, Hatch said that during his meeting with Zinke he also advocated for Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, to direct the Bureau of Land Management. Hatch provided "a number of letters," recommending Noel for the position.
"Paired with his experience as a state legislator, his appreciation of the complex administrative dynamics within the BLM make him uniquely qualified for the position," Hatch wrote in his endorsement.
Noel previously worked for the BLM for about 20 years but has since been a vocal critic of the agency and has been a supporter of efforts to turn federal lands over to state control.
His bid to head the agency has been backed by a number of Utah leaders. In addition to Hatch, he has lined up support from Gov. Gary Herbert, Attorney General Sean Reyes, former BLM director Kathleen Clarke and Don Peay, state director for Trump's Utah campaign. Conservative groups also have endorsed him, including the Western States Sheriffs Association, off-road advocates like the Utah Shared Access Alliance and Blue Ribbon Coalition, and the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.