SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump is scheduled to arrive in Utah on Monday to undo two of the most controversial public lands decisions in state history.
Trump intends to reduce Bears Ears National Monument from 1.35 million acres to 201,397 acres and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument from nearly 1.9 milllion acres to 997,490 acres, according to documents leaked last week.
President Barack Obama created Bears Ears a year ago this month under the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law granting the president authority to proclaim national monuments on federal lands to protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features.
Former President Bill Clinton used the same law in 1996 to stun Utahns with the Grand Staircase-Escalante designation.
What his Democratic predecessors did with the stroke of a pen, Trump looks to undo the same way.
"Finally, we have a president brave enough to tackle an issue important to the people of Utah," said former Utah GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz, whose district included Bears Ears.
Years of bickering over national monument designations in Utah has brought Trump to the point of what the Center for Western Priorities says would be the single largest elimination of protections for public lands and wildlife in U.S. history.
How Utah got here goes back decades.
A win or a slap?
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has been a driving force behind getting Trump to reduce the size of the monuments and to bring him to Utah to make the announcement. The seven-term senator, along with Utah's all-Republican congressional delegation, dogged Trump since he took office to do something about Bears Ears.
Trump credited Hatch for his decision to make a new monument proclamation during a phone call last month saying, "I’m approving the Bears Ears recommendation for you, Orrin."
Utah Republicans and many southern Utah leaders and residents hail Trump's move as the right thing to do for states' rights, and in the case of Grand Staircase-Escalante, long overdue.
"I believe the outcome he is planning to announce strikes an excellent balance where everyone wins," Hatch said.
"The details of the president’s announcement are his and his alone to make, but I appreciate his willingness to listen to my advice and even more importantly, to give the people of Utah a voice in this process."
Democrats, Native American tribes and environmental groups call the move illegal and a slap in the face. Many organizations plan to sue the government over the decision, which could entangle the issue in court for months, if not years.
"This is providing a huge blow for tribes and locals who worked for years to make Bears Ears a reality. Reducing the monuments is culturally and economically harmful to local government, tribes and the communities that are supported by the monuments," said Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a Ute Mountain Ute and former Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition co-chairwoman.
Trump issued an executive order in April calling for a review of national monument designations over the past 21 years and vowing to end "abuses" of the Antiquities Act.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke toured the Bears Ears area in May on foot, helicopter and horseback before turning his attention to Grand Staircase-Escalante as part of Trump's order.
A leaked copy of Zinke's memo to Trump in September detailed a list of recommendations for 10 monuments nationwide, including boundary revisions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Further leaked maps provided a glimpse at the scope of the reductions the president is contemplating.
Regardless of what Trump does, Chaffetz said the Bureau of Land Management will continue to oversee the areas.
"These lands had federal protection before and they will have them afterward. These were BLM lands and they'll go back to BLM lands," he said.
The question, which lies at the heart of the public lands debate, is how to manage the vast amounts of open space — about two-thirds of which is federal land — in Utah.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, traces the prolonged battle over national monuments back to the bill President Teddy Roosevelt signed into law nearly 112 years ago.
"Most presidents have used the Antiquities Act very sparingly, and though there were complaints about it, it didn’t have a whole lot of traction," he said.
But then-President Jimmy Carter used it to "screw over" Alaska, Clinton turned to it "big time" for political purposes, including Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Obama went "whole hog crazy" designating monuments as he went out the door, Bishop said.
Bishop said both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante were hatched under the Antiquities Act to avoid environmental impact studies and public hearings that otherwise would have been required.
In the case of Grand Staircase-Escalante, he cited Clinton administration emails that said the area was less deserving of protection than others, but the boundaries would help subvert bills by Utah Republicans that would protect less wilderness than environmentalists sought.
"They have to be done in secret and come out as a gotcha moment by the president," he said.
Scott Groene, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance executive director, said there is an ongoing debate over the fate of the state's public lands. On one side, he said, many, if not most, Utahns see enormous value in the land. On the other side, there's a small number of rural politicians from whom Utah's congressional delegation takes its marching orders.
Clinton and Obama had to step in under the Antiquities Act because the delegation "totally failed" for years to pass any type of wilderness bill, including Bishop's Public Lands Initiative, Groene said. Obama, he said, waited until the last minute on Bears Ears to give the legislation a chance.
Groene said Trump's decision to downsize a national monument that has existed for more than 20 years shows his "radical nature."
"Trump is an anomaly in all of this, in no small part because he is an erratic president and so it's possible to have this extreme action that not even George W. Bush would have contemplated," he said.
Groene predicts the courts will overturn the president's decision. But in the meantime, it undermines Utah reputation nationally, puts lands at risk and perpetuates a long history of racism toward Native Americans, he said.
Chaffetz said Obama's as well as Clinton's "overreach" opened the door for Trump to overturn their actions. He said he doesn't think Utah would be at this point had Bears Ears been more modest in size.
Obama, he said, was "really abusing" the Antiquities Act and refused to meet with the state's congressional delegation about the issue.
Trump, though, has been all ears.
Chaffetz said a compelling factor for the president was the lack of monument support among local leaders.
"There was not a single elected official in Utah that represented the area who was in favor of it," said Chaffetz, now a Fox News contributor.
Bishop said the problem with presidential monument proclamations is that they come with no details, other than lines on a map.
"Everything is up in the air," he said. "No one really knows what the hell's happening."
The congressman said he doesn't want to eliminate the Antiquities Act but proposes it include environmental impact studies and local buy-in as part of the process.
"That’s the way it should be done so you can solve these problems ahead of time. None of them can be done that way. That’s why it always has to be by surprise, and no one knows what the lines are before it’s actually announced," Bishop said.
Clinton and coal
Despite repeated pleas — including some in the middle of the night — from Utah officials to defer it, Clinton announced the Grand Staircase National Monument in September 1996. State leaders called the action purely political, saying Clinton needed the green vote and environmental dollars to win re-election.
Clinton, who had not set foot in the state since he finished third in Utah in the 1992 presidential race, made the announcement from south of Utah's border — at the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Local politicians and residents fumed that Clinton did not consult with them and issued his proclamation to please environmentalists by killing potential coal mining within the monument boundaries.
Now, Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams says Trump is bowing to special interests, including oil and mining companies, with his decision to shrink the monuments.
The Kaiparowits Plateau — apparently now outside the redrawn Grand Staircase-Escalante boundary according to leaked maps — has one of the most coveted coal reserves in the world.
Groene said it would be a "terrible bet" to mine coal there today, though he expects Trump might say otherwise.
"If Trump tries to make that claim, it's just trying to bolster his credentials on bringing back coal, but it's not going happen," he said.
Chaffetz said although he would like to see the area open to mining, he said it would take an act of Congress, which he doesn't see taking place. But, he said, Trump's decision is more about multiple use than opening the land to natural resource extraction.
"I think the main driver was more broad access to public lands than it was energy development," he said.
Actor Robert Redford, author Terry Tempest Williams and former Utah first lady Norma Matheson were the only Utahns on stage with Clinton for the monument announcement in 1996. Redford told the Deseret News at the time that the region belongs to all Americans, not "in the pockets of politicians."
Backers of the Bears Ears National Monument make the same argument today.
Mary McGann, Grand County Council vice chairwoman, said it isn't a decision that rests solely with local officials because federal lands belong to everyone. She noted that the majority of public comments to the Interior Department favor the monument.
Though the backlash against Grand Staircase-Escalante was fierce among southern Utah residents — one Kanab business owner hung Clinton in effigy — many have warmed to the monument.
Ashley Korenblat, owner of Western Spirit Cycling in Moab, said Utah's national parks and monuments are in high demand among tourists, and gateway communities are thriving. Shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase doesn't make economic sense, she said.
"It’s just not a great business decision," Korenblat said.
While the surprise Grand Staircase-Escalante designation caused a huge outcry in the state 21 years ago, the battle of Bears Ears has played out much more publicly.
With the monument controversy heating up in the summer of 2016, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell toured the Bears Ears region and met with Native American supporters of the monument and San Juan County leaders who oppose its creation.
Six months later, Obama declared it a national monument.
An indignant Republican-controlled Utah Legislature overwhelming condemned the action and urged its undoing this past February. Outdoor Retailer organizations followed in short order with plans to end the trade show's 20-year relationship with the state over the industry's frustration with efforts to unravel the monument designation.
In April, Trump signed an executive order calling for a review of national monuments created under the Antiquities Act the past 21 years. He vowed "to end these abuses and return control to the people, the people of Utah, the people of all of the states, the people of the United States."
In June, Zinke recommended that the Bears Ears' boundaries be revised; that the president request congressional authority to enable tribal co-management of the designated cultural areas within the revised boundaries; that Congress make more appropriate conservation designations within the current monument footprint, such as national recreation areas or national conservation areas; and that Congress clarify the intent of the management practices of wilderness study areas within the monument.