Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says some areas of Utah's Bears Ears National Monument do not warrant their current protections and should be removed from the monument.
In a memo sent Saturday to President Trump, Zinke recommends that Trump use his “appropriate authority” under the Antiquities Act to revise the nearly 1.5 million-acre area protected by former President Obama, to remove some land that shouldn’t be in the monument.
Zinke said some areas in the massive monument deserve Antiquities Act protection, while other areas might deserve other protections.
“There is no doubt that there are historic and prehistoric structures and other objects of interest or scientific interest within Bears Ears,” Zinke told reporters on Monday. “These items and objects can be identified, segregated and reasonably separated."
But, he added, "if you look at the Bears Ears as a whole, there is a lot more drop-dead gorgeous land than there is historic landmarks, historic structures and other objects."
The monument, designated by Obama in December, is one of the most controversial conservation actions of his administration.
Environmentalists, tribes and many local officials support preserving the expanse in southeast Utah, which contains cultural sites from Native American tribes.
But Industry groups and conservatives slammed the decision to unilaterally block development and energy production on such a wide expanse of public land.
President Trump in April ordered Zinke to review the Bears Ears Monument, as well as other large monuments designated since 1996. Under the order, Zinke was due to file an interim report with recommendations to Trump, which he did Saturday.
Bears Ears contains “some objects that are appropriate for protection under the Act,” Zinke wrote, pointing to areas that are of “historical and cultural significance” to American Indian tribes.
But Zinke’s 45-day review of the monument that Trump requested in April found that some areas in Bears Ears would be better protected by congressional designations for wilderness or recreation areas rather than unilateral protection from the president.
Zinke’s recommendation says Congress should consider applying such designations, and he suggested legislation to give local tribes co-management powers over some of the land.
“Rather than designating an area encompassing almost 1.5 million acres as a national monument, it would have been more appropriate to identify and separate the areas that have significant objects to be protected to meet the purposes of the Act, including that the area reserved be limited to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects,” Zinke wrote.
Zinke avoided making specific recommendations about how to change the monument, saying that would come at the end of his overall monuments review and after more consultation with Congress and tribes. The goal, he said, is to protect the “historic and prehistoric” features within Bears Ears that warrant protection.
While presidents have nearly unchecked power to protect federal land under the Antiquities Act, environmentalists and supporters of Bears Ears say Trump does not have the authority to reduce or rescind any previous national monuments. No president has ever shrunk or rescinded a monument previously established under the 111-year-old law.
But Zinke’s memo appears to presume that Trump has that authority, since it recommends that the boundary “be revised through the use of appropriate authority, including lawful exercise of the president’s authority granted by the Act.”
Conservation groups quickly slammed Zinke’s recommendations.
“This is an undeniable attack on our national monuments and America's public lands,” Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement.
“The decision should be an easy one — more than 1 million Americans, including Utahns by a 9 to 1 margin, have asked President Trump to leave Bears Ears National Monument alone. Instead of reinforcing America’s conservation heritage, Secretary Zinke is recommending President Trump take actions that are both unprecedented and illegal.”
Randi Spivak, public lands program director with the Center for Biological Diversity, called the memo “a slap in the face to the tribes that sought protection for Bears Ears and any American who values our incredible public lands.”
Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, contended that shrinking a monument is a violation of the Antiquities Act. The group said Monday it would sue if Trump decided to follow through on a plan to remove areas from the monument.
Reviewing Bears Ears — and other monuments — is a component of Trump’s effort to boost energy production in the United States, including on public land.
During a cabinet meeting Monday at the White House, Zinke used a brief statement to say the U.S. could be “both great stewards” of public land and “the world’s greatest producer of energy.”
Trump replied, “We can do both.”