BLANDING — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, fresh from an aerial tour over the controversial Bears Ears National Monument, marveled at the region's sprawling vistas Monday, saying there's no question what he's seen should be preserved.
The answer, however, lies in what form that protection takes — and how the Trump administration wants to get there.
"The trip today verified it is drop dead gorgeous country, no question about it," he said shortly before a hike to look at ancient Native American ruins in Butler Wash southwest of Blanding.
"Yes, of course the legacy and what I have seen should be preserved. The issue is whether the monument is the right vehicle or not the right vehicle," he said, stressing "it is public land. It was public land before the monument, and it will be public land after the monument."
Zinke and an entourage of his staff, state and local officials took off in a flurry in a trio of Blackhawk helicopters, each with a seating capacity of 11, for the closer look at Bears Ears.
On his first day on the ground in San Juan County as part of President Donald Trump's executive order looking at 27 monuments — with Bears Ears at the top of the list — Zinke emphasized the department needs to become one of collaboration, not contention.
"A lot of the anger that is out there in the country is (because) the local communities and states just don't feel like they have a voice. Washington has done things that seem to be heavy-handed and without coordination. My job as secretary of Interior is to be collaborative," he said. "We want to solve problems, not create them. We want to be the advocates, rather than the adversary...We want to restore trust."
Zinke is traveling under tight security with limited media access, in sharp contrast to last year's visit to the region by his predecessor, Sally Jewell. With few exceptions, Jewell made herself available to reporters and the public, stopping to pose for pictures with monument supporters and speaking with critics as well.
Zinke's also spent time Monday with both supporters and critics, with his office releasing several photos via social media of the interactions.
One BLM official noted that security is always a heightened concern in an atmosphere with dozens of reporters and photojournalists, as well as a clamoring public trying to catch the attention of a man who will help shape the fate of the 1.35-million-acre monument.
But while there was hope and optimism among monument supporters during Jewell's visit, many in the crowd who turned to see Zinke at the trailhead were angry and disappointed, offering criticism that the 45-day review is cursory and a step along a path toward a possible unraveling of the designation.
Cassandra Begay with a Native American advocacy organization based in Salt Lake City called PANDO, confronted Zinke and peppered him with questions as he arrived.
He wagged a finger at her and only said, "Be nice. Don't be rude."
During media availability, Zinke stressed that the "public forum" to offer monument comments is the first-ever chance for people to weigh in on monument designations under the Antiquities Act.
Comments may be submitted online after May 12 at http://www.regulations.gov by entering “DOI-2017-0002” in the search bar and clicking “Search,” or by mail to Monument Review, MS-1530, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240.
On Sunday during the first leg of his four-day visit to Utah, Zinke met with the members of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, representatives of the Utah's Historic Preservation Office and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who was at Bears Ears with Zinke on Monday.
Herbert, who celebrated his 70th birthday Sunday, said Zinke, who hails from Montana, understands the often contentious issues in the West and has promised to listen and learn with an unbiased mind.
Zinke said it's important that regardless of Bears Ears' destiny, it is important cultural traditions of Native Americans are preserved and public access is guaranteed for hunting and fishing.
"There are a lot of important things that need to be looked at," Zinke said, pointing to the emphasis by tribes that cultural traditions and access remain preserved, but that county views and mining interests also come into play.
"This is public land. It's America's land. So it is not just the tribes' here. it is not just the county, not just the governor and not just me. It is all of us."
Earlier in the day, Zinke's midmorning arrival created much fanfare at the tiny airport on the southern edge of Blanding, where Native American monument supporters pressed their case to the media.
Willie Grayeyes, chairman of the board of Utah Diné Bikéyah, said he hopes Zinke realizes that as Interior secretary, he has a “trust responsibility” to Native Americans.
That responsibility, he added, should be part of Zinke’s decision on whether the monument stands as Grayeyes hopes.
Grayeyes, joined by the Utah League of Native American Voters, also leveled criticism at Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, when he spoke Sunday in Salt Lake City and said tribes may not "understand" how a monument designation would restrict their activities.
Both Utah Dine Bikeyah and the league said Hatch's remarks were offensive.
Diné Bikéyah describes itself on its website as a nonprofit organization that "works toward healing of people and the Earth by supporting indigenous communities in protecting their culturally significant, ancestral lands."
Grayeyes and others talked about the sacred nature of the rugged landscape and why it’s so important to protect. At an event hosted by Utah Diné Bikéyah, reporters and photographers in town for Zinke’s visit were given aerial tours of the monument.
EcoFlight pilot Bruce Gordon, who has been flying 30 years, said he thinks having the "bird's-eye" view of a landscape helps to further the conservation discussion.
"We give the land a voice and we try to be objective," he said. "The aerial perspective gives people a better view."
Woody Lee, the legislative district assistant for the Navajo Nation Council, said he hopes Zinke makes time to meet with members of the nation. He said the Bears Ears region "is something we all hold sacred. It's like the U.S. Capitol building that all Americans hold sacred.”
Herbert, county leaders and members of Utah's congressional delegation have been united in opposition to Bears Ears' designation by former President Barack Obama late last year. Hatch led the effort that resulted in Trump signing an executive order on April 26 to review monument designations going back to 1996.
Zinke's visit is seen as another chance to make their argument to unravel the designation.
“The windup has been pretty intense," said San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, who said it was clear Zinke intended to listen to the variety of viewpoints about the 2016 designation.
“He's gone above and beyond in that respect," he said. Lyman said the county leaders remain adamantly opposed to the monument.
"In this country we value consent, and this was done without our consent," he said.
The morning brought together a pair of men engaged in an amiable discussion over the monument, despite holding polar opposite views.19 comments on this story
Mathew Gross, with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and Matthew Anderson, with the conservative Sutherland Institute, even posed for photos together.
"We may be opposites, but everybody cares about this land," Anderson said.
On Tuesday, during his second day on the ground in San Juan County, Zinke is scheduled to look at parts of the monument via an afternoon horseback ride.
He added he believes this trip will be fruitful.
"These are great people who are passionate about this," Zinke said. "I am actually optimistic. At the end of the day, we will make a recommendation that I think will be best for our country and best for preservation."