SALT LAKE CITY — With his Senate confirmation Wednesday as the new interior secretary, Ryan Zinke catapulted into the center of the frenzied dispute over the fate of two national monuments in Utah.
Zinke's experience as a former Navy Seal commander should serve him well as the GOP congressman from Montana enters the bitter fray over the destiny of the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument.
Both sides have rolled out the red carpet and extended invitations to Zinke to visit the region in San Juan County.
The avid hunter and angler has committed to visit Utah on his first trip in his new role to learn more about the late-December designation of the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument.
Zinke is also under pressure to act on the 20-year-old Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument designation, with a resolution passed by the Utah Legislature and signed by the governor demanding a reduction in its size.
That, too, has fostered debate that stretches beyond politics.
On Wednesday, business owners from Garfield and Kane counties held a news conference at the state Capitol to extol the economic benefits of the monument in their communities. They extended an invitation to Zinke to visit as well.
"We support monuments just as monuments support us," said Brandie Hardman, co-owner of the Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch near Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Hardman and other business owners said they'd experienced double-digit growth in visitors and patrons in the years they've been in the business — something they directly attribute to the monument's existence.
"(The monuments) are giving something to the world that is priceless and precious," said Blake Spalding, a co-owner of Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder.
Scott Berry, who founded the Boulder Mountain Lodge in 1994, said he has seen the transformation in the business community in the aftermath of the monument designation — and says it has been positive.
"We think today that the success of our businesses has been largely created by the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument," Berry said. "The lesson we have drawn from that is that monuments are good for business. We think the experience we have had will happen in San Juan County for the Bears Ears."
Zinke's Senate confirmation was sealed on a 68-31 vote that included an endorsement from 16 Democrats and one independent.
In his role to lead the U.S. Department of Interior, Zinke becomes the nation's biggest landlord, overseeing a half-billion surface acres of land that is mostly in the West.
A Montana native who served as a state senator and was elected as Montana's only member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Zinke has criticized the movement to sell or transfer public lands.
While that puts him at curious odds with Utah's push to gain control of more than 30 million acres of federal land within its borders, Zinke earned a stamp of approval from top elected officials in Utah because of his track record supporting multiple uses of public lands.
“As a fellow Westerner who understands our way of life, Ryan Zinke is the right choice to lead the Interior Department," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
"Under his leadership, I am confident that the department will be committed to an inclusive approach to land management that values the voices of Utahns and respects our role in stewarding the lands we know and love," he said.
Hatch expressed confidence that Zinke will act to untangle Utah from the "harm" of monument designations.
"In particular, (Zinke) understands the enormous damage inflicted on our communities by the abuse of the Antiquities Act. I look forward to working closely with Secretary Zinke and the president to undo the harm caused by the unilateral designations of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments,” he said.
At the same time, pro-monument organizations such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Utah Dine Bikeyah expressed concern that Zinke may be wrongfully swayed by the complaints of Utah's top politicians.
"We have grave concerns that he may be misled by Utah's congressional delegation and local elected officials into advising President Trump to take action against the Bears Ears National Monument," said Scott Groene, executive director of SUWA.
"We urge Secretary Zinke to meet with all stakeholders regarding the Bears Ears monument, including representatives from the inter-tribal coalition, and to proceed with caution and significant forethought," Groene said.
The wilderness alliance also has asked that Zinke reject calls for action against the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Utah Dine Bikeyah's board chairman Willie Grayeyes said the Bears Ears monument must remain protected.
"As local Native people and San Juan County residents, we fully expect Secretary Zinke to honor the government-to-government relationship by meeting with our elected leaders and listening to Native peoples. Our sovereign tribal nations unanimously embrace and support Bears Ears National Monument,” Grayeyes said.
During his tenure as a Montana congressman, Zinke, 55, fought on behalf of the Crow Native American tribe and coal miners for a deep water port north of Seattle and also supported ranchers in a fight against the Interior Department over efforts by the American Prairie Reserve to establish a free-range habitat for bison.
Some environmental groups have called his appointment troublesome because of his actions as a congressman to support drilling, logging and coal mining.