Washington » Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told a Senate committee Wednesday that there is no "hidden federal agenda" to unilaterally designate national monuments in Utah and around the West.
Salazar, testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, downplayed a leaked Interior memo highlighting 14 potential new monuments (including two in Utah), saying it was simply an effort to gather ideas from his staff.
"There's no hidden agenda on the part of my department," Salazar said. "As secretary of the department, I'm interested in finding out what my employees are thinking. ... I do think there are a lot of other people out there who have ideas. No one should be too worried that there is a hidden federal agenda because there is not."
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, released the Interior memo two weeks ago, arguing that he had unearthed what could be plans by the Obama administration to convert public lands in Utah and other states to national monuments -- a move that would block any development or oil and gas drilling in those areas.
Two of the sites listed are in Utah: San Juan County's Cedar Mesa and Emery County's San Rafael Swell.
Bishop's finding set off a flurry of letters and comments by Utah politicians wary of such federal action, remembering how then-President Bill Clinton used the century-old Antiquities Act to name the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. That move came only days after administration officials denied they were pursuing any action.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, rattled off the Clinton administration's behind-the-scenes efforts that set aside tens of thousands of acres of federal lands in Utah and noted that the state had been "burned" before and was suspicious of any talk of more monuments.
"Maybe you felt we overreacted," Bennett said, "but that's because you had not lived through this experience."
Pressed by Bennett, Salazar vowed that no one from the White House was pushing any monument designation.
"Let me assure you, Salazar said, "that there is no direction from the White House on any of this to the Department of the Interior -- zero."
Bennett said he buys that. "I accept at face value your assurance that this is just a discussion."
Salazar was appearing before the Senate energy committee to speak about his department's budget request but fielded his first question of the day from the panel's chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., about the national monument issue.
Salazar said his department's approach on wilderness and protection designations would mirror the committee's recent actions, including Utah's Washington County lands bill, a compromise measure signed into law last year and backed by environmentalists, local leaders and developers.
"That's the kind of approach that we intend to take," Salazar said. "We will listen to the people of this country, state by state."