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Washington • Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to head the Interior Department, said Tuesday that the president has the power to amend the declaration of a national monument and, perhaps, to remove one.
While not specifically mentioning the Bears Ears National Monument that President Barack Obama named Dec. 28, Zinke said communities and states should have a voice in whether a monument is named, and left open the idea of Trump rescinding previous declarations.
"When it comes to a monument, I think the state should have a say on it," Zinke told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee during his confirmation hearing. "There's no doubt the president has the power to amend a monument. It will be interesting to see if a president can nullify a monument. Legally, it's untested."
Zinke hinted that the Bears Ears designation was on the top of his mind, and, should he be confirmed, he would make dealing with it a top priority. He said he would visit Utah as one of his first acts, naming it one of the "pending problems we need to address quickly." He did not elaborate.
Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who sits on the committee, said there is "nothing in the Antiquities Act that prohibits revisiting" a monument declaration.
The reverse is also true there is no explicit authority in the act for a president to undo a previous designation and a decades-old attorney general's opinion concluded that such authority does not exist.
Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who had fought a monument designation, says he believes the president does have the power to undo the Bears Ears National Monument designation.
"Anything done by fiat can be undone by fiat," the congressman said Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, Bishop had said the best route, though, would be through Congress to get rid of the monument.
"It has to be done legislatively," said Bishop, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. "The president doesn't have the power to do the things he claims he wants to do."
Obama used the 1906 law to name 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah as a monument in his waning days in office. Courts have largely given deference to a president in designating a monument, though some presidents have trimmed the size of such declarations of their predecessors.
Zinke said he would visit with Utah officials and the community affected by the Bears Ears monument and, upon his return, make a recommendation to Trump on what action he should take. Under questioning from Lee, Zinke said it was "absolutely critical" to have local support for a monument.
In his opening remarks, the interior secretary nominee said that public lands are "America's treasures" and some of them should be managed in the model of "man has a light touch and is an observer."
Zinke, though, also said that most federal lands should be open to multiple use and that he will work to ensure that local communities and states have a voice in how they are managed.
"I fully recognize that there is distrust, anger and even hatred against some federal management policies," Zinke said. "Being a listener and a listening advocate rather than a deaf adversary is a good start."
Zinke also said that he would work to ensure that the National Park Service's $12.5 billion maintenance backlog would be part of Trump's promised push for new spending on America's roads, bridges and other public works.
The committee's chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said that Obama, "with little regard for local concern and opposition," has designated more land and water as national monuments than his predecessors. She also said it is wrong that "Washington, D.C., can tell someone living in Fortymile, Alaska, or Blanding, Utah, what their life is going to look like."
"Of course, Congressman Zinke, you are not responsible for this," Murkowski said. "But I am counting on you as are many Alaskans and many Americans to come in and help fix it. I know that you are a Navy man, so forgive the expression, but we hope the cavalry is on the way."
Zinke is a former Navy SEAL.
The nominee has not been as controversial as some of Trump's Cabinet picks, though he faces opposition from some environmental groups and others.
"With Ryan Zinke leading the Interior Department, federally owned lands will be served up to oil and gas interests for an unprecedented wave of fracking, drilling and mining a wave that Zinke and the Trump family could use to enrich themselves," said Jessica Mackler, president of the Democratic group American Bridge. "His nomination sends a clear message to the fossil-fuel industry that America's public lands will soon be up for sale and open for business."
Zinke, a Republican, has voted against the selling of public lands but did join his colleagues at the start of the new Congress in supporting a rule that would place no value on public lands if they are transferred to states. He told the committee he would have opposed that portion of the rules had it been a separate measure.
Americans are upset about how their public lands are managed, Zinke said, and the push to sell off federal tracts emanates from that angst.
"It's a shot across the bow that we have to do something," Zinke said.