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Chaffetz: President ‘absolutely’ wants to take action on Bears Ears

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Rep. Jason Chaffetz meets with the editorial board at the Deseret News in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz meets with the editorial board at the Deseret News in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump "absolutely" wants to take action to change the Bears Ears National Monument designation made by his predecessor, said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.

"I hope it is rescinded. The second option would be to reduce it to a very, very small size. That has more precedent," Chaffetz told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Tuesday. "But I want to go back and do it the right way."

Before that can happen, the congressman said the president's pick for secretary of the interior, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, needs to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Chaffetz said Zinke would have visited Utah on Monday if he were secretary.

Chaffetz said his preference would be for the monument designation to be repealed by the president rather than merely reduced in size. He described Trump as "very supportive, very sympathetic."

Whether Trump can do that is being reviewed by "legal eagles," Chaffetz said, because while a monument has been shrunk in the past, this would be the first time a president's designation was rescinded.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright on Tuesday that he, too, believes the Bears Ears monument designation will be reversed under the new president.

"I believe we’ll get it changed," Hatch said. "It's not over. I’ll put it that way. And neither is Grand Staircase," a reference to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument set aside by then-President Bill Clinton.

That national monument designation 20 years ago cut off access to what the senator described as one of the "greatest coal deposits" in the world, a "tremendous economic resource for Utah. That's going to change."

Hatch said Trump is "very susceptible" to taking action.

"Watch what happens in the next few months," the senator advised. "I think you're going to see that this man will respect our state, and he should."

Zinke will be sent to Utah by the new president, Hatch said.

"I think he is going to be on our side," he said of the nominee.

Later Tuesday, a letter surfaced from Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asking the superintendent of Bryce Canyon National Park to explain the timing of a post on Twitter about Bears Ears and another monument designated in Nevada.

"Welcome to the family Bears Ears (& Gold Butte) NM! A hopeful slot in our front desk maps has long been held for you," read the tweet posted from the park's account the day after the monument designations on Dec. 28.

Chaffetz said in the letter that the "message created the appearance that officials at Bryce Canyon coordinated with the White House prior to this most recent designation," calling into question a claim made to Gov. Gary Herbert that no decision had been made as of mid-December.

Bryce Canyon Superintendent Susan Fritzke told Chaffetz that "no employees were consulted with, or coordinated with, any entities regarding the designation of Bears Ears National Monument."

Fritzke said the slot for Bears Ears was created late last summer by a park volunteer assigned to reorganize materials available at the visitor center's front desk and that she became aware of the new national monument after it was publicly announced.

Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah political science professor, said the letter from Chaffetz appears to be an attempt to send a warning to federal employees that they should be cautious.

"It's a way of saying, 'Don't do things that get out ahead of what the political position is,'" Burbank said, especially at a time when some National Park Service and other government employees have "rogue" Twitter accounts critical of the administration.

Burbank questioned why there would be interest in the tweet otherwise.

"The reality is this looks like pretty small potatoes," he said. "I can't see what the harm would have been."

There has been no shortage of politics surrounding Bears Ears, including the announcement last week by the Outdoor Retailer group that the trade show was leaving the state after 20 years because of opposition to the monument.

The group said it would not let Salt Lake City compete to host once the current contract expires next year, after Gov. Gary Herbert signed a legislative resolution calling for the monument to be rescinded.

The resolution is a key part of the push by state officials to undo of the designation of 1.3 million acres in San Juan County made by then-President Barack Obama in his final days in the White House.

It was at the top of the list of items Chaffetz said he brought up during his recent meeting with Trump, who not only was "well-versed" about the designation but even knew about the similar concerns surrounding Grand Staircase.

Chaffetz said he wished the Outdoor Retailer show wasn't going but said the effort against the monument designation wasn't to blame.

"It's a convenient excuse for them to say our policy on Bears Ears is driving them out," the congressman said, labeling it "hogwash" to suggest the effort to undo the monument designation was their reason for departing.

"Nobody needs to grovel with these folks," Chaffetz said. "They had made up their mind some time ago."

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said the talk from members of the state's all-Republican congressional delegation about Trump's willingness to roll back the national monument designation hurts the state.

"It's more of the same right-wing rhetoric that made us lose the Outdoor Retailer show," Corroon said. "What's next, future Olympic possibilities, Sundance, etc., etc.?"