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Washington • House Democrats say, based on thousands of pages of documents, that the Interior Department had worked and communicated with Utah elected leaders ahead of the declaration of the Bears Ears National Monument despite their claims that it was a unilateral decision void of any local input.
After President Barack Obama named the monument in late December, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and members of the state's federal delegation complained the White House had misused its authority, ignored the will of local residents and shown "little regard" for elected officials who represent the area.
But just a week earlier, Herbert's policy director, Cody Stewart, sent an email to the Interior Department secretary's deputy chief of staff, praising their working relationship.
"Thanks again for all your time," Stewart wrote, according to the House Democrats. "I'm not kidding when I say you're an amazing example of a public servant. I have the utmost respect for you. Thank you for your time and attention."
The House Democrats' memo also notes there were 11 emails exchanged in the lead-up to Obama's declaration showing coordination of phone calls between the Interior Department and staffers for Herbert and the congressional delegation.
While the memo asserts the Interior Department was working with Utah officials, most of the contacts they highlight appear to center around the Public Lands Initiative (PLI), being pushed by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee not a monument designation. The Democrats did not release the individual emails or documents they cite.
A spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Committee denounced the findings as cherry-picked quotes.
"The minority's desperate attempt to create a façade of local support for President Obama's abusive actions is cute but laughable," said spokeswoman Molly Block.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, also a supporter of PLI called the Democrats' memo "insulting." The Utah delegation had only worked with Interior on legislation, not a monument, and two requests for meetings with Obama were turned down, he said.
"Since 2013, we've made a Herculean effort to engage all stakeholders, including the Obama administration, in finding a comprehensive solution to land-use issues," Chaffetz said in a statement. "The released documents describe ongoing conversations about the Public Lands Initiative, not a monument designation. The PLI process included repeated attempts to engage President Obama directly but were consistently rebuffed. Democrats on the Oversight Committee who know nothing about Utah cherry picking documents to tell one side of the story is insulting and undermines the efforts of local stakeholders who spent many hours negotiating in good faith toward a collaborative solution."
Herbert's office said that the documents Democrats are pointing to show how the state worked for three years to forge a legislative solution.
"It is disingenuous to refer to that productive, deliberative legislative process solution as a way to justify the unilateral use of executive power," Paul Edwards, Herbert's deputy chief of staff, said. "The state of Utah is ready and willing to pick up the baton and work to resolve these issues through a fair, negotiated, legislative process once again."
On Dec. 28, Obama used powers granted to the president under the 1906 Antiquities Act to declare 1.35 million acres of federal land in southeastern Utah as the Bears Ears National Monument, a designation sought by tribal leaders and environmentalists to protect the area dotted with culturally sensitive areas.
That action came after Utah's members of Congress failed to advance their own proposal to protect the area under the PLI that had started as a comprehensive effort to reach compromise among environmentalists, tribes, county, state and federal officials on how to set aside some areas for conservation while allowing other lands to be opened up to oil and gas exploration. Tribal leaders and environmental groups, for the most part, withdrew from the process after they said their input was ignored.
President Donald Trump's Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, said during his confirmation hearings that he believed the president had the power to curtail the monument's size and possibly jettison the declaration altogether.
The House Democrats' memo offers a different version than the one presented by Utah officials, arguing that then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell had communicated with Utah's members of Congress as early as 2013 about the Bears Ears area and that there was regular contact up until the monument declaration.
"If anyone wants to paint Bears Ears National Monument as a surprise or the product of rushed or incomplete planning, they'll have to explain hundreds of emails and dozens of pages of shared work product," said Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, the Natural Resources Committee's top Democrat. "These documents are an exemplary record of public servants going above and beyond to find a workable solution to a complicated issue, and they show Democrats and Republicans working together more often than not."
If any governor said "half the nice things that Governor Herbert's office said about the Interior Department during this process, I could retire a happy man," Grijalva added.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee chaired by Chaffetz, said the documents provided by Interior showed a close working relationship between the federal government, the delegation and other interested parties.
"Taken together, these documents demonstrate a lengthy and productive working relationship between the [Interior] Department and multiple stakeholders, they include frequent acknowledgment of the department's eagerness to accommodate third party needs, and they show that many local officials strongly supported a monument designation," Cummings said.