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San Juan commissioners return from D.C. trip on Bears Ears

SALT LAKE CITY — A San Juan County commissioner says this week's meeting with U.S. Department of Interior staff "went really well," even as the clock is winding down to Saturday's deadline for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to make a recommendation on the fate of Bears Ears National Monument.

"We know how special it is to be invited back there and asked to give our input, so trust me, we are taking it very seriously. I think he (Zinke) is trying to make a decision based on the facts," San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said Tuesday. The commissioners flew home late Monday after a day of meetings with federal officials, providing additional information at the agency's request regarding Bears Ears.

Zinke is supposed to make a recommendation on the monument's fate to President Donald Trump, who ordered a review of the controversial designation with an executive order he issued in late April.

The merits or detriments of former President Barack Obama's Bears Ears designation in southeast Utah made last December are under scrutiny by the current administration to determine if local sentiment was properly considered and if the monument's footprint meets the legal provisions of the 1906 Antiquities Act.

That law gives U.S. presidents the authority to designate national monuments to protect antiquities — or cultural resources or landmarks — but says the president must reserve the "smallest area compatible with the proper care and management," of the objects to be protected.

Monument critics say the Bears Ears designation is too big — larger than the state of Rhode Island — and unnecessary given federal laws already on the books but not in existence at the time the Antiquities Act was passed.

Zinke's review of Bears Ears is being carried out in the tight window of 45 days, which included a four-day visit to Utah in May in which he explored features of Bears Ears via a hike, horseback ride, driving tour and with an aerial survey aboard a Blackhawk helicopter.

He also met with members of the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, ranchers, monument supporters and critics, as well as county commissioners and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which sought the monument designation.

As the deadline for a decision draws near, the campaign to rescind or preserve the monument in San Juan County is heating up on both sides, with supporters and critics taking to social media to call support for their cause.

This week, members of the inter-tribal coalition, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Native American advocacy organization Utah Dine Bikeyah organized a four-day gathering in the Comb Wash area of the Bears Ears National Monument.

The event, billed as the 3rd annual Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Summer Gathering, includes dances, youth workshops, herb gathering, storytelling, music and educational presentations from elders and tribal leaders.

Trump's review of monuments includes 26 other designations of 100,000 acres or more that stretch back to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — created in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton.

The surprise announcement — made from the neighboring state of Arizona — solidified local resentment against the federal government, fostering animus among conservative leaders in Utah that has not diminished on federal public lands issues.

Like Bears Ears, Trump asked Zinke to review those monuments for adherence to the Antiquities Act and if local input was adequately considered as part of the designation process.

That review will be wrapped up by July 10.