Interior secretary tours controversial Bears Ears monument

Bears Ears has become a flash point in the debate over federal land use

Hannah Grover,
  • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke met with local officials at the Blanding, Utah, Municipal Airport.
  • President Donald Trump issued an executive order asking Zinke to review more than two dozen national monuments.
  • Zinke says the Bears Ears region needs to be preserved, but questioned if the national monument is the best way to preserve it


U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, and Utah Governor Gary Herbert hold a news conference, Monday, May 8, 2017 at Butler Wash southwest of Blanding, Utah.

BLANDING, Utah — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke described himself as a Teddy Roosevelt Republican as he spoke to the media while standing on the edge of the Butler Wash overlook trail in the Bears Ears National Monument on Monday.

As a Teddy Roosevelt Republican and a Montanan, Zinke said public lands are an important issue for him.

His visit was prompted by an April 26 executive order by President Donald Trump asking the Secretary of the Interior to review all national monuments designated using the Antiquities Act since 1996 that are larger the 100,000. The order includes a number of monuments in southwestern United States, including Canyons of the Ancients in the Four Corners Area and Grand Canyon Parashant in Arizona.

But, Bears Ears National Monument, which has become a flash point in the federal land debate, was on the top of the list.


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Time running out on Bears Ears

In December, President Barack Obama designated the region, which is named for two prominent buttes that resemble bears' ears as a national monument. 

While flying over the monument on a media tour Monday morning, Tim Peterson, the Utah Wildlands program director for the nonprofit conservation and advocacy group Grand Canyon Trust, said all five tribes have the same name for the formation — Bears Ears.

"It really has everything that the Antiquities Act was meant to protect," Peterson said.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert, left, and U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke make their way to their press conference, Monday, May 8, 2017 at Butler Wash southwest of Blanding, Utah.

However, the use of the Antiquities Act to create the monument has been called government overreach.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said the Bears Ears National Monument as well as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument near Kanab, have been controversial. He said some residents near Grand Staircase-Escalante still feel bitter about how it was designated in 1996 and about the expansive size of the national monument.

Those same sentiments are being echoed in southeastern Utah.  As San Juan County Commission Chairman Bruce Adams waited for Zinke's arrival outside the Blanding airport, he wore a baseball hat reading "Make San Juan County Great Again."

To Adams, one thing standing in the way of that is Obama's designation of Bears Ears, which he said could negatively affect the county's oil, gas and other extraction-related industries.

Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes speaks to reporters during a visit from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at Blanding Municipal Airport in Utah.

Utah Speaker of the House Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said Zinke's visit provides the small communities in the area with an opportunity for open dialogue.

Hughes said he met with Zinke on Sunday at the state capitol and had dinner with him. 

Hughes said on one side of the argument is the concern that the national monument will restrict access to more than 1.3 million acres of land in southeastern Utah. On the other side, Hughes said there is a "strong desire and I think a noble goal to be good stewards of the land."

Kenneth Maryboy, the Mexican Water, Utah, Navajo chapter president, said the thousands of archaeological sites and the sacred landscape have been looted and vandalized and need to be protected. 

Zinke said a lot the anger in the United States at this time is due to a feeling that local voices are not being heard by policymakers.

"We're the collaborative department," he said of the Department of the Interior. "We want to work with local communities. We want to solve problems rather than create them. We want to be advocates rather than adversary. When you see a BLM truck out there, I want to make sure that the public views that BLM truck as a land manager, someone to be respected. When they see a park ranger, I want to make sure their kids look up and say, 'You know what, I want to be a park ranger.' You know a lot of that is restoring trust."

Of Bears Ears, Zinke said, "The trip today verified that it is drop dead gorgeous, no question about it."

The question is, Zinke said, about how to best preserve the landscape and cultural heritage of the Bears Ears region. 

Despite protesters gathered at the airport and trailhead, Zinke chose not to have a public forum. He said accepting comments on gives everyone a voice, and he also dismissed questions about Navajo who may not have internet access.

"Sure, there's tons of Navajo, and everybody, not just the Navajo, have access to," he said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.