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The Trump administration is launching its four-month review of 27 large national monuments designated since 1996 under the Antiquities Act, including two controversial monuments in Utah.
That review formally kicks off this weekend with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's arrival in Utah to investigate Bears Ears National Monument, designated by President Barack Obama just a few weeks before he left office, and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
At the urging of Utah's political leaders, President Donald Trump ordered the review April 26, when he called out Bears Ears as a "land grab" that should not have happened.
But in a news statement Friday, Zinke tried to dispel criticism that the review is "rigged" toward eliminating or reducing monuments, just as the agency was poised to open its review for public comment.
"The Department of the Interior is the steward of America's greatest treasures and the manager of one-fifth of our land. Part of being a good steward is being a good neighbor and listening to the American people who we represent," said Zinke, a former Montana congressman. "There is no pre-determined outcome on any monument."
Zinke said he looked forward "to hearing from and engaging with local communities and stakeholders."
He is scheduled to meet Sunday with the Bears Ears Commission, a panel of tribal leaders formed under the proclamation Obama signed Dec. 28 setting aside the 1.35 million-acres monument in San Juan County.
Representatives of the five tribes proposing the monument are to play an advisory role in its management, although the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service have ultimate decision-making authority.
"The traditional ecological knowledge amassed by the Native Americans whose ancestors inhabited this region, passed down from generation to generation, offers critical insight into the historic and scientific significance of the area," the Bears Ears monument proclamation states.
Native Americans have complained that Interior has ignored numerous requests from tribal leaders and monument supporters for meetings with Zinke or his staff while he has met with the San Juan County Commission, Utah's congressional delegation and others opposed to the Bears Ears designation.
"The tribes, for the first time ever, are looking at really having their role as stewards of this landscape recognized," said Gavin Noyes of Utah Dine Bikeyah, a grassroots Utah Navajo nonprofit supporting the monument.
Tribal groups see the monument as crucial to safeguarding Bears Ears from looters, off-roading and mineral development and preserving it for traditional and spiritual uses.
Many ranchers, county officials and residents fear the monument will put an end to "multiple use" on these lands west of Blanding, with potentially dire economic consequences.
On Friday, Interior released a list of monuments to be reviewed, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase. The process is aimed at deciding whether each designation complied with the Antiquities Act's requirement that the land set aside is "the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected."
Interior will also decide whether the protected lands were properly classified as "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, [or] other objects of historic or scientific interest."
In addition, Zinke will explore each monument's effects on uses of federal land, concerns of local, state and tribal governments, and the availability of federal resources to manage the monuments.
The five largest monuments under review are marine monuments in the Pacific, totally 218 million acres, roughly four times the size of Utah. The others are generally in the West and total 11.25 million acres.
With the exception of Maine's 87,000-acre Katahadin Woods, the land monuments all exceed 100,000 acres and are in Western states, with two of the three largest in Utah. Many were designated by Obama since 2013: Nevada's Gold Butte and Basin and Range national monuments; New Mexico's Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks; and California's Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, San Gabriel Mountains and Berryessa Snow Mountain.
President Bill Clinton designated 1.7 million acres for Grand Staircase in 1996 and Congress later expanded it by nearly 200,000 acres when it authorized a land swap for the state trust sections scattered inside the monument in Kane and Garfield counties.
The Obama administration had offered a similar arrangement for some 150,000 acres of state trust lands inside the Bears Ears monument, but Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declined to work out a trade, according to Zinke's predecessor at Interior's helm, Sally Jewell.
The public will have until May 27 to submit comments on the Bears Ears review, which is on a tight time frame, and until July 12 for the other monuments.