SALT LAKE CITY — While protestors clogged the sidewalk outside, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he will be gathering perspectives of people on all sides of a deeply controversial issue as he reviews the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
Zinke landed in Salt Lake City on Sunday bound for his four-day "listening tour" regarding the monuments — both designated by Democratic presidents and decried by Utah Republicans — but the voices on the street expressed their doubt the secretary will listen much at all.
Speaking to reporters in the offices of Utah's Bureau of Land Management, Zinke said that while many of the nearly 30 national monuments he will be reviewing enjoy widespread support, he doesn't believe that's the case with Bears Ears.
"The Bears Ears is not widely supported or accepted in the state of Utah," Zinke said, citing the outcry from state legislators and congressmen over the designation, and a Native American population he says is at odds with one another.
Zinke went on to say he has no doubt the area will be a breathtaking "cultural treasure," but he isn't decided about how it should be protected.
"I'm sure what I'm going to find over the next couple of days is beautiful, beautiful land worthy of protection. What vehicle that takes, I don't want to be predisposed because I haven't see it and haven't talked to everybody yet," Zinke said.
Outside, Dena Williams, of Salt Lake City, stood with her two sons among the crowd of protesters watching for a glimpse of Zinke's motorcade. The family carried signs demanding, "Keep public lands in public hands."
"This is important because this is about their future, their quality of life, and everything they hold important today and in the future is at risk," Williams said of her two boys.
Asked if she thinks Zinke will listen to that plea, Williams said she "wants to remain hopeful, but it's hard to tell."
Nikolas Johnson, 14, and Lukas Johnson, 12, are active with the Boy Scouts of America, going often to Grand Staircase to hike, camp and enjoy nature.
"The president or anyone else shouldn't be controlling the lands. It should be the people," Nikolas said.
Lukas said he wants the nature he enjoys to be preserved for other kids in the future, voicing concern that without protections, "lousy coal and oil" will take over the land.
Under an executive order from President Donald Trump, Zinke will conduct a 45-day review of the Bears Ears monument and a 120-day review of Grand Staircase-Escalante before sending his recommendations to the White House.
"I'm looking at making sure we follow the law, what the Antiquities Act was intended to do, talking to all parties, and getting a perspective of making sure Utah and the stakeholders have a voice," Zinke said of the reviews.
While Zinke acknowledged no U.S. president has ever rescinded a national monument, he noted that few monuments "are to the scale of the recent actions," and saying it's not uncommon for a monument and its boundaries to be modified.
Rallies for and against the monument designations over the weekend prefaced Zinke's visit.
Opponents of the monuments say the designations by Democratic presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are examples of federal overreach that didn't take into account the feelings and sensibilities of local interests.
But supporters believe setting the areas aside under the Antiquities Act preserves land considered hallowed by Native Americans for centuries and ensures they will remain intact for future generations to enjoy.
Zinke met Sunday with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which is made up of leaders of the Hopi Tribe, Utah Navajo Chapter of Olijato, Navajo Nation Council, Ute Indian Tribe and Zuni Tribe.
The secretary called it the first time the tribal leaders have had an opportunity to voice their perspectives about the monument designations, describing the mistrust he believes they feel over a history of efforts to manage the land.
A similar mistrust, Zinke says, is felt by Utahns living near the monuments, the state's elected leaders and others.
However, at least some representatives of Native American groups in the state say they have been cut out of the conversation. Virgil Johnson, tribal chairman of the confederated tribes of the Goshute nation, was among the protestors Sunday and said his letter requesting a meeting with Zinke was denied.
"The executive order gives us a right to come to the table, but they're making decisions without native voices at the table," Johnson said. "What we would like is for him to see why we are very protective of our sacred grounds and the artifacts that are left there."
Throughout his media appearance, Zinke called himself a Montana man; a former geologist who is fascinated by archaeology; a military commander who wants to see "the frontlines" of any situation; an admirer of President Teddy Roosevelt, who created the Antiquities Act and designated the first national monument; and someone who is not an advocate of transferring or selling public lands.
Zinke also met Sunday with Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, both R-Utah, followed by meetings with the State Historic Preservation Office and Utah Department of Heritage; legislative leadership and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes; and the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.
At the media appearance, Hatch introduced the secretary as someone who is "experienced in Western lands" and "understands what we're up against."
Afterward, Hatch said Native Americans in Utah "may not understand" how a national monument designation restricts what they are able to do on the land. Asked to provide examples of what tribes would no longer be able to do, Hatch simply said the reasons would take too much time to go into.
"They would be severely restricted on what they could or could not do on the land," Hatch said. "I can just tell you it will never cease until the far left gets their way in locking up all these lands in Utah, and we're just not going to allow that."
Hatch said there are a number of political obstacles between different Native American groups in the state and that sometimes different groups are "manipulated." He also said the state's elected leaders "love Utah" and will ensure it's protected without being "shoved around by radical people from elsewhere, on either side of the issues."
On Monday, Zinke will be joined by Gov. Gary Herbert and members of the state's congressional delegation as he flies over Bears Ears and takes a tour of the House of Fire site.
Moving forward, Zinke encouraged Utahns wanting to weigh in on the review to visit regulations.gov in the coming weeks to leave a comment.