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Utah legislators plan to ask President Donald Trump not only to rescind the just-created Bears Ears National Monument, but also to erase large portions of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument created a generation ago.
"We want to downsize some of its boundaries protect those areas that people visit, and downsize the rest," said Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who led a discussion of those plans Tuesday in the House Republican Caucus.
"There's a whole lot of just plain old sagebrush roped into these monuments," he said, claiming the designations prevent ranching, mining or other activities that could help rural economies.
Environmental groups and Democrats blasted the GOP plan.
"The message that Utah is sending by even suggesting this is nothing short of outrageous," said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "This would be a tragic mistake for the president to undo two decades of conservation work that has been heralded across the world as a visionary step by President Clinton to protect a world-class resource," he said, referring to Grand Staircase.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, questioned, "Have they made any attempts to find out what people down there think?"
He said many residents in the Grand Staircase area now make their living in part from visitors to the monument. "I think people are getting a little ahead of themselves."
No president has ever attempted to rescind a monument, and many contend no such authority exists in law.
But Noel who is under consideration by the Trump administration to become director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said presidents have in 14 cases adjusted boundaries or the size of monuments, "so that's a given we can do that."
Bloch discounted that.
"The fact that presidents have made minor boundary adjustments over time, none of which were reviewed by federal courts, does not mean that President Trump has a green light to vastly alter the size of either Bears Ears or the Grand Staircase," he said.
Meanwhile, Noel told GOP lawmakers he feels legal arguments are strong that a president can rescind a monument. "A president can make a monument. Another president can reverse a monument."
But Bloch said the "conservation community would quickly litigate" any attempt to rescind Bears Ears or vastly reduce Grand Staircase.
Ever since President Barack Obama created the Bears Ears monument on Dec. 28 on his way out of office, local elected leaders have hoped aloud that Trump would try to reverse it. Now at the same time, they want him to erase parts of Grand Staircase, which was created over objections then by President Bill Clinton on Sept. 18, 1996.
"Both these monuments are in my district," Noel said. "Both of these monuments were illegal in my view. They were done as a result of wanting to pay off environmentalists," the conservative lawmaker alleged, citing provisions of the 1906 Antiquities Act that require a monument to be as small as possible to protect threatened resources.
Grand Staircase includes 1.9 million acres, which is larger than Delaware. Bears Ears has 1.35 million acres.
Noel said while GOP lawmakers plan to ask Trump for a full repeal of Bears Ears, "If that doesn't work, the next thing would be probably a partial repeal with an area selected around Bears Ears."
He said some talk was made of trying to reverse Grand Staircase after the Clinton administration when George W. Bush took office, but that administration declined.
"We now have an opportunity for two years [with GOP control in Congress] to do some things … so we can benefit from the use of our public lands," he said.
Noel said Utah's congressional delegation requested a resolution from the Legislature asking Trump to rescind Bears Ears. He said it is being drafted. To show its importance, he said House Speaker Greg Hughes and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser plan to sponsor it in each chamber.
Noel said laws prohibiting theft or vandalism of artifacts have long protected the archaeological-rich Bears Ears area in southeastern Utah, as have environmental and other land-use laws.
But because of new attention to the area because of the monument designation, "Security could be beefed up there."
A coalition of American Indian tribes, including the Navajo Nation, pressed for designation of the monument after what they said were failed attempts to have a voice in legislation sponsored by Congressman Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said during the discussion, "We want to protect that which needs to be protected," but "let's release those areas that don't need the protection of the Antiquities Act."
Stratton, like Noel, is a vocal advocate of transferring control of federal public lands to states.
That is in contrast to Trump's nominee for Interior secretary, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, who has been sharply critical of such land-transfer efforts, even resigning as a delegate to the Republican National Convention last summer over its platform plank in support of this movement.
Still, Zinke suggested during a confirmation hearing this month that he and the administration might be open to redrawing monument borders, perhaps even rescinding them.
"There's no doubt the president has the power to amend a monument," Zinke said. "It will be interesting to see if a president can nullify a monument. Legally, it's untested."