U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, right, shook hands with Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Utah State Director Ed Roberson during a visit to The Nature Conservancy's Dugout Ranch on Tuesday, May 9. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Will President Donald Trump’s administration move to reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument, or try to undo his predecessor’s proclamation of the 1.35-million-acre site altogether?

Supporters and opponents of the new monument are searching for clear signs of the administration’s next steps, as U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke fulfilled an early promise and toured the area this week during a two-day “listening tour” of San Juan County.

The country’s top federal land management official had a chance to see the area’s Ancestral Puebloan ruins, colorful sandstone canyons and forested uplands for himself during visits to Cedar Mesa, The Nature Conservancy’s Dugout Ranch and the monument’s namesake buttes just west of Blanding. With little time to explore the vast area on foot – or even by car – Zinke also joined San Juan County officials on a helicopter flight that took him from Goosenecks State Park in the south to the monument’s far northern boundary near Dead Horse Point State Park.

The visit follows Trump’s issuance of an executive order that directed Zinke’s department to review national monuments greater than 100,000 acres that former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have established since 1996.

The formal public comment process on the review of past monument proclamations is scheduled to begin on Friday, May 12, and Zinke said it “finally” gives a voice to local communities and states when it comes to past designations under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

“There is no predetermined outcome on any monument,” Zinke said in a prepared statement. “I look forward to hearing from and engaging with local communities and stakeholders as this process continues.”

Monument supporters voice concerns about visit; county officials welcome Zinke

Moab resident and Sierra Club representative Wayne Hoskisson said he isn’t sure what the “big takeaway” from Zinke’s visit was, since he and other monument supporters had limited opportunities to interact with the secretary.

“It’s really hard to tell because he wouldn’t talk to us,” Hoskisson said. “He did his best to avoid us.”

A press release from the Interior Department billed the visit as a listening tour, but Hoskisson called it a “very one-sided” listening tour. Hoskisson said that while at least one acquaintance was able to have a one-on-one conversation with Zinke, others like himself did not. With no direct access to the secretary, they gathered at the intersection of state Route 211 and U.S. Highway 191, and waved their signs as Zinke’s convoy of government officials and journalists drove by them on Tuesday, May 9.

If he had to venture a guess, Hoskisson suspects that contrary to Zinke’s statement, the administration has determined the next steps it will take in the process of reviewing monument proclamations over the past 21 years.

“From what I’ve heard, Secretary Zinke has already made up his mind,” he said.

San Juan County Commission chair Phil Lyman likely knows how Hoskisson feels, even if he doesn’t share his views in support of the monument.

He felt much the same way when former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited the area last summer. As Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition members and other groups urged Obama to declare an even larger national monument in San Juan County, Lyman said that the county’s elected officials had little opportunity to address their concerns in depth.

From the San Juan County Commission’s perspective, Lyman said he believes that Zinke was interested in hearing what the county’s elected representatives had to say.

“We didn’t have any substantive input with Secretary Jewell,” Lyman said, estimating that county officials spent about 45 minutes with Zinke’s predecessor.

San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams chuckled when asked if Lyman’s recollection of the 45-minute visit is correct.

“Commissioner Lyman is very generous with that (estimate),” Adams said. “It was a token visit at best.”

In a “180-degree” shift from his predecessor, Adams said, Zinke took his time to meet with local stakeholders, including area ranchers who are directly affected by the designation.

“It was pretty optimistic and pretty positive,” Adams said. “I thought he was listening to the local people, and it was really nice to have him.”

However, Navajo Nation Oljato Chapter Vice President Albert Holiday, who joined Hoskisson and others at the roadside gathering in support of the new monument, said that county commissioners who voice widespread opposition to the monument aren’t representing people like himself.

“All of the commissioners and the top officials – they’re in our way,” Holiday said. “They didn’t give us a chance to talk to Zinke.”

Holiday, who also serves as a member of the Dine Bikeyah Board of Directors, said the county’s Navajo residents have long been left out of the commission’s decision-making process.

“All of these commissioners never listened to us for so many years,” he added. “… They don’t take us seriously. They think we’re dumb Indians.”

Adams countered that Holiday told him in no uncertain terms that he is not welcome at the Oljato Chapter’s meetings.

“For me, it’s pretty hard to decide: Do you want me to listen to you, or do you want me to stay away?” Adams said. “I heard him loud and clear when he told me he didn’t want me to come to the chapter meetings anymore.”

Lyman said the views that Holiday espouses are not shared by those in his social circle.

“I don’t know a single one of my Native American friends who are in support of the monument,” he said. “I don’t know where it comes from … It’s not a majority.”

It could be that Lyman has never met Monument Valley resident and Bears Ears supporter Frances Yellow Sheppard, whose memories of the area stretch back about six decades. She said she began to visit the area with her parents as a young girl to gather pinyon pine nuts, pick berries, gather wood and hunt deer on the mesa.

While other monument supporters have voiced concerns about the Bears Ears’ future, Yellow Sheppard believes it’s unlikely that the new administration will succeed in reducing the size of the monument, or in rescinding the proclamation that established it.

“I have faith that it’s going to stay the same,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Hoskisson said there is no legal precedent to rescind a monument, or reduce the size of a monument’s boundaries.

A few presidents have altered those boundaries on rare occasions – Hoskisson said that Woodrow Wilson’s move to reduce the size of what was then Mt. Olympus National Monument in Washington state is perhaps the most notable example. But former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt subsequently reversed Wilson’s decision, and Hoskisson said there are no legal decisions on record that the administration could use to further its case if it tries to reverse Obama’s decision.

“There are a lot of problems with the idea of the president trying to take unilateral action against a monument,” he said.

By Hoskisson’s estimates, somewhere between 30 and 40 organizations are actively working to support the monument, and if President Trump tries to change or undo Obama’s proclamation, he said it won’t be the end of the story.

“It will be a huge national issue, and if they try to do anything with the national monuments, they’ll probably end up in the courts,” he said. “And that will probably drag on until the next administration.”

For Lyman, however, the administration’s review could address what he sees as federal government overreach that occurred during Obama’s presidency.

“To use the Antiquities Act for this massive landscape management is an abuse at every level,” he said.

Based on his conversations with the interior secretary, Lyman anticipates that Zinke will be coming back to San Juan County at some point in the future.

“He said, ‘This was my first visit – not my last visit,’” Lyman said. “I think that’s how he’s approaching this.”

If Zinke does indeed return, Holiday said he hopes that Trump and others in his administration will tag along, taking the time to see the area for themselves, and to meet with people like himself.

“They need to come out here and look at our land and listen to us,” he said.

Interior Secretary tours area as Trump administration reviews national monument proclamations