Congressional Democrats and tribal leaders renewed criticism Wednesday of President Donald Trump for scaling back two national monuments in Utah following a wider review of lands protected around the country by past presidents.
The 2017 national monument review had a predetermined outcome and didn’t take into account tribal interests despite some of the lands being sacred to them, lawmakers and tribal leaders said during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing in Washington.
The hearing brought the contentious review carried out by ex-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke back into the spotlight and rehashed many of the arguments that surrounded that assessment. The review led Trump to downsize two Utah monuments that protected wide expanses of lands home to tribal artifacts, dinosaur fossils and wildlife habitat.
Republicans on the committee and a few local representatives from Utah defended the review of 27 national monuments created since 1996 as a necessary re-evaluation of misuse by past presidents of a law that is supposed to be used to create small monuments around areas with particular historical or archaeological value. They said Trump’s decision to follow Zinke’s suggestion to downsize in December 2017 the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments was necessary to correct abuses by Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, the committee chairman, called the monument reductions “the largest public lands rollback in modern American history” and said questions persist about whether the process was illegal and improperly influenced. The Interior Department’s office of inspector general report cleared Zinke of wrongdoing following a complaint that he redrew the boundaries of a national monument in Utah to benefit a state lawmaker and political ally.
Zinke was asked to appear but declined, Grijalva said. He also said there had been multiple requests sent to Interior on how the decision was made, but many of those inquiries have gone unanswered.
Several tribal leaders testified that the downsizing of Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah by about 85 percent peeled back protections, exposing lands that are sacred to several Native American tribes.
“In Hopi, we never just leave an area. . . . Yes, maybe there is nobody there today, but we know spiritually they are still there,” said Clark Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe. “It would hurt all the nations that have ties to Bears Ears if oil, mining and other activities were to occur there. How would you feel if I took an ATV and rode around in your church area?”
A coalition of tribal, conservation, outdoor recreation and paleontology groups have sued to block the downsizing of the monument. Those lawsuits are pending.
Zinke and Trump have openly advocated for a return to American energy dominance. But so far, no mining has occurred on lands stripped from the Utah monuments despite exploratory interest from companies, according to state and federal officials who approve permits.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, scoffed at the notion that monument cuts were about opening the lands for oil, gas and other mineral extraction. He urged the Democrats to support his proposal that would create new rules to limit the unilateral power afforded presidents under the Antiquities Act that is used to create national monuments, and require approvals from local entities.
“The problem is there are no rules. There is no process in the law,” Bishop said. “It is a worthy topic to discuss, even if the Democrats have put blinders on to try to narrow the focus.”
Bishop and others who defended the review and pointed to a sweeping public lands bill signed into law on Tuesday by Trump that creates five new monuments — two of which Zinke suggested — as the right way to establish monuments rather than unilateral decisions made by presidents.
“That’s the way monuments should be made,” Bishop said.
In the 15 months since Trump downsized the Utah monuments, the president has done nothing with Zinke’s proposal to shrink two more monuments, in Oregon and Nevada, and change rules at six others, including allowing commercial fishing inside three marine monuments in waters off New England, Hawaii and American Samoa.
Zinke resigned in December amid multiple ethics investigations and has joined a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm. Trump has nominated as his replacement Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil and gas industry and other corporate interests.