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Washington • Beneath a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, President Donald Trump said Wednesday his order to review national monument designations over the past 21 years would return power to the states and free up federal acreage for public use and access.
Tribal leaders and environmentalists agreed the effort could free up vast swaths of public lands but for coal mining and oil and gas drilling.
While Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he didn't want to pre-judge what recommendations he would make on the new Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah or other monuments, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence said the executive order would result in changes to the designations by previous presidents and potential tweaks to the Antiquities Act that Roosevelt signed into law in 1906.
"The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it's time we ended this abusive practice," Trump said in Zinke's Interior Department office. "I've spoken with many state and local leaders, a number of them here today, who care very much about preserving our land and who are gravely concerned about this massive federal land grab, and it's gotten worse and worse and worse, and now we're going to free it up, which is what should have happened in the first place.
"This should never have happened," Trump added.
Tribal leaders and conservationists panned Trump's order, saying that it could unravel protections for millions of acres. Presidents have changed the boundaries of their predecessor's monument designations but none has ever attempted to remove the protection outright.
Under the order, Zinke has 45 days to recommend possible changes to or rescission of Bears Ears and four months to report back on proposals for about 30 other monuments, including southern Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument named by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
"Today I'm signing a new executive order to end another egregious abuse of federal power," Trump said, "and to give that power back to the states and the people where it belongs."
The order does not mandate any changes to monuments.
Zinke said he would travel to Utah in early May and visit the Bears Ears region.
'Attack' on tribes • Tribal leaders who had pushed for the Bears Ears monument denounced the new effort that could lead to its undoing.
"The designation of Bears Ears National Monument has been a celebratory moment in our history, where our voice was finally heard and our cultural and spiritual heritage was respected," said Davis Filfred, Navajo Nation Council delegate. "Unfortunately, the Utah delegation has continued to attack tribes and this unnecessary executive order serves to undermine tribal sovereignty. If Secretary Zinke truly believes that 'sovereignty should mean something,' as he had said, we hope he will finally respond to the tribes' multiple requests to meet with him."
After the order was signed, Zinke said that he would meet with tribal leaders as part of his review.
Pence made clear the intent of the order was to reduce the size of existing monuments.
"In just a few moments, President Trump will begin to undo one of the great federal overreaches of recent decades: The abuse of the Antiquities Act by politicians in Washington, D.C., to grab land and power at the American people's expense," Pence said before Trump signed the order. "Under his leadership, we're going to once again work with the states to return power to the people who have the best ability to protect our nation's natural, historic and cultural treasures."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who met privately with Trump and Pence after the signing, said he was unsure what recommendations would come out of the review but that he hopes it would be a solution that all sides could praise.
"I can't speak for the president but I can say he knows what I want," Hatch said. "He's done this basically for me."
Trump essentially said that was true during his brief remarks, noting Hatch was relentless in pushing for a review of national monument designations. The president gave the senator the pen he used to sign the order.
"Believe me, he's tough," Trump said of Hatch. "He would call me and call me and say, 'You've got to do this.' Is that right, Orrin? He doesn't stop. He doesn't give up. And he's shocked that I'm doing it but I'm doing it because it's the right thing to do."
But while Hatch was taking credit for the order and Utah's other senator, Republican Mike Lee, attended the signing ceremony, more than two dozen of their colleagues across the aisle expressed deep concern about the move.
"We request that any process evaluating national monuments designated under the Antiquities Act should be conducted through an open, transparent and public process in which all Americans can participate and provide their information and insight," said a letter to the president signed by 31 Democratic senators. "In particular, it is important that government to government relationships with federally recognized Indian tribes be maintained through meaningful consultation."
'Fix it' • Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who was also present at the signing, said he expects parts of Bears Ears to remain protected but some borders could be modified. And he noted that the 1.8 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument may, too, be made smaller even though it has been in place for more than two decades.
"If it's an overreach, if it's an abuse of the Antiquities Act, then we ought to fix it," Herbert said, calling the Grand Staircase the "poster child for overreach. ... The fact that it's 21 years later or two years later, if in fact what they've done is wrong and an overreach, fix it."
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, added that he hopes some coal reserves now inside the Bears Ears monument are carved out but that sites sacred to Native Americans are preserved.
The coal areas, he said, are "not sensitive land. It's not probably worthy of protection."
The order, just over a page long, brought a strong rebuke from the environmental community that sees the move as a way to open up vast amounts of federal lands for oil, gas and coal exploration.
"Donald Trump's latest executive order furthers his vision for our public lands: a polluted wasteland crammed with oil rigs and strip mines as far as the eye can see," said Friends of the Earth's Lukas Ross. "In his first 100 days in office, Trump is determined to turn our public lands and waters into energy sacrifice zones. Americans have already deemed these places as too beautiful, too fragile and too unique for extraction. It would be unconscionable if we let Trump hand them over to his polluter cronies and campaign contributors."
Heidi McIntosh, Earthjustice's managing attorney in the Rocky Mountains, said Trump was putting national monuments on trial so he could later chop them up.
"No president in American history has reversed a national monument designation, but Trump is looking for ways to gut monuments and weaken the Antiquities Act, the nation's century-old public lands law protecting some of our most cherished landscapes and heritage," McIntosh said.
Uncharted waters • Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., lambasted the order at the same time he reintroduced legislation called America's Red Rock Wilderness Act that would set aside 9.2 million acres of Bureau of Land Management turf as wilderness.
"The president's decision to review these national monuments puts the future of these resources in jeopardy and threatens our culture, history and heritage," Durbin said. "And if President Donald Trump decides to use the Antiquities Act to reverse one of these monuments, he is going to be treading uncharted waters."
A leading member of the American Indian coalition backing the monument promised a battle if Trump tries to rescind Bears Ears' monument protection.
"As tribes, we will gather ourselves together to continue the fight to save our lands for the future of not just Native people, but all people who connect with these lands," said Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee. "Bears Ears … is a living landscape; it has a pulse. It is offensive for politicians to call the Bears Ears National Monument 'an abuse'. To the contrary, it is a fulfillment of our duty to preserve our cultures and our ancestral lands, and its designation was the result of a long, deliberative process to fight for our ancestors as well as access for contemporary use of the lands by our tribal members."
Zinke, a former Montana congressman, said he would take a serious look at the monuments and talk to all stakeholders involved before making any recommendations.
"The president looks at this and sees tens of millions of acres and the law says 'minimum' so there's a gap," Zinke said, "and that's where I come in."