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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
A view of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument from Spencer Flat on Sunday, July 9, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made clear to Utah's governor that if ever there were a clearly abusive use of the Antiquities Act, it was the 1996 designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he does not know specifically what fate may await the monument in southern Utah, but it could be reduced to two or possibly three smaller monuments.

"You won't find 1.9 million acres in the Grand Staircase-Escalante that need protection. It doesn't mean that there aren't Bureau of Land Management lands and BLM doesn't manage, but to have the enhanced protection of the monument, I think, was overreach."

Herbert, who spoke on the monument issue during his monthly KUED media event, said Zinke shares Utah's concerns over the size of the monument.

"(Zinke) indicated to me, as has been said by a number of people, and I am one of them, if there were ever an example of the abuse of the Antiquities Act and overreach, it was the Grand Staircase."

President Donald Trump directed in an executive order that monuments of more than 100,000 acres, starting with Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996 and ending with Bears Ears in 2016, come under review for compliance with the Antiquities Act.

The 1906 law was passed by Congress in response to looting and grave robbing of cultural resources, or antiquities, but the law's provisions call for setting aside "the smallest area compatible" with the objects to be protected.

From a televised event at the Grand Canyon National Park, then-President Bill Clinton made the Grand Staircase-Escalante designation in a surprise announcement that set off a storm of fury and resentment among Utah leaders.

"Again, we were lied to by the Clinton administration," Herbert said. "Our governor, Gov. (Mike) Leavitt, found out about it by reading the newspaper, even though the day before they said it wasn't going to happen."

Both monument critics and supporters are anxious over what will happen to the monument declared 21 years ago.

"I think there is the possibility of carving it up into smaller monuments, two or three, that actually protect the areas that need protection," Herbert said. "So we will have to see what the president does."

Zinke has already indicated the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County needs to be reduced, a recommendation that came shortly after his visit to both monument regions in May.

"I think the biggest thing for a lot of us is … to give the Native Americans more say in the management of the lands they consider sacred," Herbert said. "As I meet with a number of Native Americans, they say they would like that."

The governor was in the Four Corners region last week and said he met with Navajo tribal leaders, including the Navajo Nation's vice president, Jonathan M. Nez.

"We talked about this very issue. 'Would you like to have more control, more say?' And they would say, 'Yes.' That has to happen legislatively. It is kind of a repeal and replace if you think about it," Herbert said.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which includes leadership from the Navajo and four other Native American tribes, has threatened to sue the Trump administration if the monument designated last December is altered in any way.

Herbert said any lawsuit would not serve the region or the tribes.

"If they litigate, it would be litigating — at least in my view — against their own interests," he said.