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In our opinion: Secretary Zinke's decision may lend balance to monument designation

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talks with the media after a trip into the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument near Kanab Utah on Wednesday, May 10, 2017.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talks with the media after a trip into the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument near Kanab Utah on Wednesday, May 10, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke apparently is recommending two national monuments in Utah be reduced in size to more precisely conform to the spirit and letter of the 1906 Antiquities Act, which grants presidents the power to declare monuments.

We are under no illusions that this will settle the contentious issues surrounding these monuments. Interest groups are bound to argue passionately against any reduction. But it would be hard to argue with a straight face that both these monuments followed the law’s dictates to set aside the “smallest area compatible” with the objects in need of protection.

A cleareyed review is called for, if such a thing is possible in a political context these days. Over the years, presidents have used the Antiquities Act to set aside large tracts of land, putting them off limits for mining and other uses, without detailed justifications.

The Bears Ears, designated in December by President Barack Obama, is 1.35 million acres. That’s considerably less than the 1.9 million acres certain Native American tribal leaders sought, but it is a large area. Its designation has stirred controversy, but it should be the less contentious of the two.

The Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument is 1.9 million acres. Of the two, its origins were the most blatantly political. President Bill Clinton created it in the heat of his 1996 re-election campaign, without any consultation with Utah’s political leaders and without setting foot in the state.

Zinke signaled his intention Thursday by releasing the executive summary of a draft review of monuments. Six of the 27 monuments included in the review will not be changed. Zinke apparently will recommend the president alter the remaining 21, although details were not immediately available.

Significantly, Zinke did not recommend rescinding any of the monument designations entirely. That likely would have opened up lengthy legal challenges, as the Antiquities Act makes no provisions for such a thing.

Various groups may decide to challenge the reduction of monuments, as well, although there are precedents for it. President Woodrow Wilson, for instance, cut the Mount Olympus National Monument in half before it subsequently became a national park.

In Utah, there can be little argument that parts of both the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears monuments ought to be designated as such. In the debate preceding Obama’s designation last year, virtually all sides agreed on some footprint. An attempt to broker a compromise, led by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, included it, as well.

But Zinke’s claim that “Adherence to the act’s definition of an ‘object’ and ‘smallest area compatible’ clause on some monuments were either arbitrary or likely politically motivated, or boundaries could not be supported by science or reasons of practical resource management” ought to be carefully studied.

The West may forever struggle with the conflicting forces pushing either to preserve amazing scenery and historical artifacts or to make a living from the land. We hope the Trump administration will take its stated intentions seriously and provide a credible review of these monuments before making a final decision.

The last thing the state needs is a haphazard review that will be changed yet again by a future president.