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Hatch visits Bears Ears, calls monument designation a 'massive land grab'

SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, toured San Juan County on Thursday and met with local residents over the controversial Bears Ears National Monument designation.

“When President Obama designated the Bears Ears monument in December, he did so ignoring the voices of Utah leaders who were united in opposition, and even more importantly, ignoring the voices of the local Utahns most affected by this massive land grab,” Hatch said.

The longtime senator said he has met with both President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke several times over the designation to discuss the next steps on how to address the "mess" the monument created. Hatch said that includes finding ways to alter the monument to still allow for protections but also provide more local control.

"I think a lot can possibly be done, but we'll see," Hatch said during his visit. "I think we should get rid of the monument that was designated without the consent of the people and then work from there, listening to the people in this area on what they want. … I think I would like to get the system to work a lot better than it does now."

Hatch's visit to southeast Utah comes a day after the surprise announcement by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, that he will not seek re-election in 2018 and may step down before his term ends.

Chaffetz, however, did say unraveling the monument designation is at the "top of the list" of things to do before he leaves Congress.

"Do it the right way," Chaffetz said. "I want to be able to go down there and enjoy it."

Utah's entire congressional delegation has railed against President Barack Obama's December proclamation of the 1.35 million-acre monument, arguing it is an abuse of executive power and an affront to the majority of Utah residents.

The monument designation came after an intense push by the tribal leaders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition backed by environmental groups. The Native American tribes view the land as sacred, and the remote region is described as an archaeological treasure trove full of cultural resources that's in jeopardy due to looting and vandalism.

In his monthly KUED news conference Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert reiterated the state's commitment to push for action on the Bears Ears monument designation but noted that its actual destiny remains uncertain.

"What they do with the monuments remains to be seen," Herbert said.

The governor stressed, too, that opposition to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monument designations stems from their massive size.

"(Designations) should be the smallest area compatible" with what needs protected, he said.

But a report released Thursday by Public Lands Solutions, a nonprofit group dedicated to the development and promotion of recreation assets, said San Juan County can dig its way out of its status as the poorest county in Utah by taking economic advantage of the new monument.

Instead of being viewed as a detriment to be overturned, the report said county leaders and the tribes should use the monument to work on economic development scenarios that include targeted marketing of prime landmarks within the monument for cultural and adventure tourism. Those areas could include Cedar Mesa, Comb Ridge and Moqui Canyon.

Through the establishment of a well-designed management plan, Native American tribes and local businesses can bolster economic vitality in the region by using the monument to drive interest in cultural tourism and recreational activities suited for the monument, according to the report.

Monument critics have blasted the idea of using the new designation to drive tourism, with some locals saying they don't want the area to become another Moab crowded with visitors.