Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke completed a two-day visit to San Juan County on May 8 and 9 to investigate Bears Ears National Monument.
The visit included a tour of the monument via Black Hawk helicopter, on-site visits to several locations, the chance for a horseback ride neat the Bears Ears buttes, and meetings with a host of local and state elected officials.
It is the second visit by a Secretary of the Interior in less than a year. Sally Jewell visited the area in July, 2016, six months before President Barack Obama designated the 1.35-million acre national monument.
When the Bears Ears was designated a national monument in December, 2016, there was an outcry of local opposition to the monument. Every elected official with direct responsibility for the land opposes the designation.
In late April, Zinke was directed by an Executive Order by the new president, Donald Trump, to investigate the possible misuse of the Antiquities Act over the past 21 years. The Antiquities Act has been used to designate national monuments.
President Trump has stated that creation of the monument “should have never happened.”
Zinke flew into the Blanding Airport with a contingent of elected and federal agency officials, including Utah Governor Gary Herbert, Congressman Rob Bishop, and a host of state and local elected officials.
A group of 27 passengers piled into three Blackhawk helicopters for a two-hour tour of the perimeter of the massive monument, which covers more than 2,100 square miles.
“We flew from Dead Horse Point to the San Juan River,” said San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, “including the Canyonlands Basin, Beef Basin, Elk Ridge, Dark Canyon, Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa.”
The helicopters did not touch down at any location. After returning to Blanding, the group traveled to the Butler Wash roadside ruin, where Zinke and Governor Herbert held a brief press conference before hiking to the overlook of the ruins.
At the press conference, Governor Herbert said, “I am glad to have the Secretary of the Interior here to take a look at public lands. It is time for us to come together and work together for the common good of our public lands.”
Zinke, who served as a Navy Seal, said, “It was a great flight. It has been a while since I have been on a Blackhawk without people shooting at me.”
“I want to make sure everyone’s voices are heard,” said Zinke, who is eighth in line to the presidency. “A lot of the anger is that local communities and states don’t feel like they have a voice. The federal government in Washington, DC seems to have done things that are heavy handed.
“My job as Secretary of the Interior is to ensure the Department of the Interior is a collaborative department. We want to work with local communities to solve problems and not to create them. We want to be advocates rather than adversaries. The goal is to restore trust.”
When asked if the area he has seen should be preserved, Zinke said, “Yes, of course. The issue is whether the monument is the right vehicle.
“It is public land before and after the monument. The question is what vehicle of public land is appropriate to preserve the cultural identity, and make sure the tribes have a voice and preserve the traditions of hunting and fishing and public access.”
Then the group traveled to Mule Canyon and hiked to the House on Fire ruin. There were small groups of supporters and opponents of the monument at each stop.
Afterwards, the group traveled to Blanding, where Zinke stopped the convoy to meet with a large group of county residents who oppose the designation.
A separate meeting with Department of Interior officials was held at Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding.
On Tuesday, May 9, the contingent traveled to the Dugout Ranch, where they met with officials from the Nature Conservancy. Afterword, Zinke had planned an extensive ride on horseback near the Bears Ears buttes.
After the San Juan County visit, the contingent was set to move to Kane and Garfield counties for a one-day visit to Grand Staircase–Escalante national Monument.
Secretary Zinke said he was on a fact-finding mission and that there is no predetermined outcome of the investigation. The trip has been marked by requests from a large number of groups to meet and discuss the monument.
Despite not meeting with a large number of groups on his whirlwind trip, Zinke defended the fact-finding process.
“I’ve talked to the tribal coalition and people at the sites and communities we have visited. Most importantly, I’ve talked extensively to the elected representatives of the people.
“I have already far surpassed the last administration in being open, in being available, and seeing that the local voices and the state voices are heard.”
Instead of holding town hall meetings, similar to the meeting in Bluff held by Secretary Jewell in July, 2016, the Department of Interior is instead seeking written and submitted public comment on the monument.
“For the first time ever, the process for a national monument is open to public comment,” said Zinke. “Simply go to regulations.gov and let us know how you feel. My job is to ensure that all voices are heard.”
After touring the area, including the two-hour flight in a Black Hawk helicopter, Zinke said that the Bears Ears area is “drop dead gorgeous.”
“At 1.35-million acres, the scale of the monument is massive, particularly in contrast to the first national monument created under the Antiquities Act, Devils Tower in my home state of Montana, which was just 1,200 acres.”
Zinke said he was impressed by the vast array of cultural and traditional resources in the monument and by the recreation opportunities that are available.
“We want to guarantee that there is protection, access, and wise stewardship of these lands,” said Zinke. “This is how public lands should be managed.”
After touring the area, Zinke said he is confident that they’ll be able to find a solution to the challenges. “Universally, everyone loves this area and wants to see it properly managed,” said Zinke.
Zinke expressed some disappointment about the lack of infrastructure in the area, specifically mentioning the lack of bathrooms and designated parking in many areas.
“There needs to be preparation and infrastructure at many of these sites, in addition to some monitoring. We need to be mindful of the pilfering that has taken place in the past.”
Zinke stated that even though his agency – the Department of the Interior – is responsible for the review of the Antiquities Act, the Department of Agriculture is also involved in the review. The Department of Agriculture manages the public land in the Forest Service.
“The Forest Service will certainly have input in any recommendation that we make,” said Zinke. “In fact, we have representatives from the Forest Service on our fact-finding tour.”
The Bears Ears portion of the investigation is to be completed in 45 days. In total, 27 monuments will be under review, even though Zinke stated that many of the designations are not controversial.