Zinke went to Bears Ears to listen, but supporters felt unheard

The Interior Secretary’s monument review is off to a complicated start.


When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke arrived at the Butler Wash trailhead in Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument for a press conference on May 8, 60 to 70 monument supporters were waiting to greet him. Many wore “Protect Bears Ears” t-shirts and carried signs: “Utah Stands With Bears Ears,” “Honor Tribes, Honor Bears Ears,” “#whatwouldteddydo.”

Similar gatherings — organized by nonprofits including the Sierra Club, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Utah Diné Bikéyah—followed Zinke all along his Utah “listening tour.” Zinke visited Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to begin the monument review process recently ordered by President Donald Trump. Citing “abuses” of the Antiquities Act, Trump tasked Zinke with evaluating national monuments of more than 100,000 acres designated since 1996 to determine if they adhere to the act’s requirements. According to the act, monuments should encompass “the smallest area compatible with proper care and management.” Trump may attempt to pare down or even revoke monuments that Zinke deems improper.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, left, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert walk past demonstrators during a tour of the Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah.
U.S. Department of Interior

Of all the monuments Zinke must review, Bears Ears is the most controversial. Though Utah’s citizenry is divided, its leadership is not: Utah’s Congressional delegation and San Juan county commissioners have been outspoken in their opposition, citing concerns about lost economic opportunity and public access. Gov. Gary Herbert, whose staff largely organized Zinke’s visit, signed a resolution asking Trump to rescind the monument, an unprecedented action that would likely lead to years of litigation. Meanwhile, members of Native American tribes to whom the Bears Ears region is sacred have defended the monument alongside environmentalists and those who recreate there. “We love our public lands,” said one man who had traveled from Moab to show support. “We don’t think our state representatives represent all of us.”

Throughout Zinke’s Utah visit, the Secretary reiterated his intention to consider the viewpoints of people on all sides of this issue in making his recommendation to the President. Trump “put (the review) in motion to make sure that local communities count, states count, America counts,” Zinke said at Butler Wash. “He wants to hear your voice.” But if his visit to Bears Ears is any indication, some voices may be heard more loudly than others — and monument advocates fear theirs will be drowned out.

When Zinke landed at the small airport in Blanding, Utah, that morning, several tribal leaders were milling around the parking lot, hoping to have a word with him. Although Zinke has said he intends to “make sure the tribes have a voice,” only two tribal members met with the Secretary before his helicopter tour of Bears Ears: Commissioner Rebecca Benally and Harrison Johnson, both members of Aneth, the only tribal chapter that has come out against the monument. The rest of Zinke’s Utah monument tour continued this way, with the Secretary spending considerable time with prominent monument opponents such as House Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah; State Rep. Mike Noel, R; Gov. Gary Herbert, R; and San Juan County commissioners. According to a spokesman for Gov. Herbert’s office, the Secretary was “very much guided by the executive order itself,” which specifically asks that he consider the “concerns of State, tribal, and local governments affected by a designation.”

Zinke did have two official meetings with Bears Ears supporters: the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, leaders from five tribes who advocated for the monument, and Friends of Cedar Mesa, a conservation nonprofit based in Bluff, Utah. Tribal leaders and environmental groups felt they were getting short shrift; these meetings accounted for only an hour and a half of Zinke’s two-day visit. “The community is getting defensive because we made history as natives,” said Malcolm Lehi, a former council member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The day before Zinke’s visit, Lehi drove around a wide swath of the monument, putting up “Protect Bears Ears” signs. By the time the Secretary arrived, they had all been removed.

Utah Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, left, who along with most of the Utah delegation opposes the Bears Ears National Monument, speaks with monument supporters Kenneth Maryboy, Leonard Lee and Mark Maryboy, from center left, members of the Navajo grassroots nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah, during Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s visit to the state.
Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP

Zinke’s task is as complex as the landscapes he’s reviewing. The criteria at hand are far from concrete — how small an area is “compatible” with protection of thousands of scattered archaeological sites? When it comes to a place like Bears Ears that means so many different things to different people, there is no clear-cut path to a solution. Though he declined to hold a public meeting while at the monument, Zinke has encouraged citizens to submit comments online for 15 days starting May 12. 

While Zinke appeared to have “a genuine interest in learning all sides of this issue,” says Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, “his starting point was very unbalanced.” The window to review Bears Ears closes on June 10, so Zinke won’t have much time to learn more. And with 26 more monuments to review by August 24, it’s likely he won’t be able to look as closely at any of the others. After spending much of his tour with people adamantly against the monument — a pattern that continued when he visited the controversial Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument later that week — it’ll be incumbent on the Secretary to “reach beyond that influence,” says Ewing. “It’ll take extraordinary effort to balance out his perspective.”

Note: This article has been updated to include a statement from Utah Gov. Herbert’s office and to clarify the positions Rebecca Benally and Harrison Johnson, both members of Aneth, the only tribal chapter that has come out against the monument. Neither Benally nor Johnson are tribal leaders; they are tribal members. Neither holds a tribal elected office.

Rebecca Worby is an editorial intern at High Country News.   

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