On April 26th, President Donald J. Trump went to the Interior Department to do exactly what Sen. Orrin Hatch told him to do: declare war on our national monuments.

As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Sen. Hatch, and assorted other Utah officials looked on, Trump unveiled an executive order directing Zinke to “review” all monuments greater than 100,000 acres created since 1996.

That date was not coincidental.  Trump made it abundantly clear that, although Zinke’s review would eventually encompass some 27 national monuments, it was Utah’s two most recent national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, that were in the crosshairs.  Grand Staircase dates to 1996.

Utah was the target, of course, because Hatch has been feeding misinformation to Trump about national monuments since the beginning of Trump’s presidency.  Every Utahn has heard Hatch claim, ad nauseum, that monuments are “federal land grabs” (though they are created from federal public land), and that locals hate them because they damage communities and their economies (though local economies prosper when there’s a monument in the neighborhood).  Theology rests first on faith, not facts.

Once a Real Estate Salesman . . .
“[This] sounds like the largest real estate deal I could ever be involved in,” Trump reportedly told Hatch in private.  In public, standing behind an Interior Department lectern, he praised Hatch.  “He doesn’t stop,” said Trump.  “He doesn’t give up.  And he’s shocked I’m doing it, but I’m doing it because it’s the right thing.”

As Trump spoke, it was clear that he had bought Hatch’s ideological jeremiad about national monuments hook, line, and sinker.  “Bears Ears—I hear it’s beautiful,” he said.  “[But] it’s time to end these abuses and return control to the people, the people of Utah.”

Trump’s last sentence is as ominous as it is cynical.  Parse it and you get this: “Bears Ears is beautiful.  But, so sad, we’re giving it back to Utah, anyway . . . just as soon as we create an illusion of a fair and balanced examination.”  Trump’s executive order gave Zinke just 45 days to complete an “interim report” recommending the fate of Bears Ears National Monument and 120 days to report on the future of others, including Grand Staircase-Escalante, another clear indication of what the real targets of the order are.  Trump then turned to Hatch and handed him the pen he’d used to sign this declaration of war on our monuments.

“It’s my honor,” Trump said.  Beyond that reference, the day was devoid of honor.

Hatch, according to the Deseret News, “bent down to accept the pen from a seated Trump, holding it carefully in his hands in a motion that looked like a bow.”  When devout fabulists find one another, affection blossoms.

45 Days of Action; Four Days of Showmanship and Sham
Trump’s announcement kicked off our “45 Days of Action” campaign, which saw thousands of SUWA supporters in Utah and across the nation take action to resist the attack on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.

Initially, the Interior Department provided just 15 days for the public to comment on the fate of Bears Ears (most comment periods last 60 days).  Despite this outrageously short window, Americans submitted more than 685,000 comments by the May 26th deadline.  Analysis of one sample of comments indicated that they were running 99 to 1 in favor of leaving Bears Ears intact.  (The comment period has now been extended through July 10th.  You can submit comments via the Interior Department’s comment page at www.regulations.gov.)

Zinke finally made good on his promise to come out to Utah.  He and his handlers did everything they could do to give his visit a gloss of fairness and objectivity where none existed and to ensure that the visit was wildly lopsided (he spent 90 percent of his time with monument opponents).  But everywhere he went, monument supporters were ready for him and waiting.  Some started early.

On May 5th, the day before the secretary arrived in Utah, more than 2,500 people—tribal leaders and monument supporters alike—rallied on the steps of the state capitol in Salt Lake City to demonstrate strong in-state support for our monuments.  The next day more than 500 people showed up outside the Bureau of Land Management offices in Salt Lake City, where Zinke was holding a perfunctory one-hour meeting with leaders from the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.  (To our knowledge, this was one of only two pro-monument groups he met with during his entire visit.)

Blackhawks Up!
SUWA activists were on hand in San Juan County the next day when Zinke flew to Blanding, along with Gov. Herbert, Rep. Rob Bishop, and a phalanx of other Republican state leaders.  They immediately boarded three Blackhawk helicopters along with the entire San Juan County Commission for an aerial tour of the monument.

Later in the day, Zinke and his entourage seemed shocked to find more than 70 SUWA activists and tribal members waiting for him at the Butler Wash Ruins in Bears Ears.  For a moment, Zinke abandoned any pretense of courtesy, wagging a finger in the face of a young Navajo woman who asked why he wasn’t meeting with more tribal leaders.  “Be nice,” the former Navy Seal bellowed at her.

At Indian Creek the next day, dozens of monument supporters again met the secretary.  He rolled down his window as his motorcade passed, said hello, and then took off for a private horseback ride in Bears Ears, accompanied by more San Juan County officials.

In Grand Staircase-Escalante the following day, Zinke took a road tour out to Smoky Hollow to see a coal seam.  Yes, a coal seam!  He listened intently as Rep. Mike Noel, Utah’s Old King Coal, intoned the need to shrink the monument to allow mining.   Later in the day, more than 300 people attended a rally in Kanab led by local business owners who support the monument.

Zinke’s trip was not a truth tour—he didn’t need truth and didn’t seek it.  The fix was in.  But by the time Zinke ended his visit, he must surely have understood that most of what Hatch and others in the Utah delegation had fed him was bilge.  Helping to drive home just that point, another 150 people lined the Kanab Municipal Airport gates as Zinke held a final press conference on the tarmac.  In news reports that evening, monument supporters’ chants of “We are locals!  Talk to us!” were clearly audible in the background as Zinke made his fantastical claim to have “heard from all sides.”

As his plane took off into the late afternoon sunlight, there was no doubt that SUWA members and other monument supporters had left everything on the field.  The question was, would it make any difference?

A Pre-Ordained Outcome?
On June 12—just as this issue was going to press— Secretary Zinke released his interim report on the fate of Bears Ears.  As expected, he recommended that the monument be shrunk substantially, although he didn’t say by how much; he kicked the specifics down the road, pledging to include them in his final report on the fate of all 27 monuments, including Grand Staircase-Escalante, which is due August 24th.

The good news is there was no immediate executive action to gut Bears Ears.  The bad news is that the report wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.  It asserted, wrongly, that the president had the authority to adjust the boundaries of the monument.  It then proceeded to call on Congress to make parts of Bears Ears a National Conservation Area and to give Tribes co-management of whatever crumbs remain of the monument after Trump dices it up.

Such calls for congressional action are a red herring, as the Utah delegation already showed an unwillingness to protect Bears Ears adequately in its abysmal Public Lands Initiative (PLI) last year—and the administration is doing the same by showing its intent to shrink the boundaries of the monument.  Since the failure of the PLI, Sen. Orrin Hatch, Rep. Rob Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz have done nothing but lobby the Trump administration to undo the monument.  They have no serious intention of protecting Bears Ears and have already failed to do so.

Zinke’s interim report may not have caused immediate damage to Bears Ears National Monument, but the end game is an unprecedented and ongoing attack on Utah’s redrock wilderness.

—Mathew Gross

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, summer 2017 issue)