SALT LAKE CITY — Already entrenched critics of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's national monument review have new ammunition with a Monday Washington Post story detailing internal agency documents they say shows clear bias against land protections.
"This confirms many suspicions Western Values Project has had over the sham monuments review process and the reliability of the public documents released from Secretary Zinke's Interior," said Chris Saeger, Western Values Project's executive director.
The story details internal documents showing a preference over multiple use activities on monument lands rather than protections of resources that can come with a monument designation.
"The thousands of pages of email correspondence chart how Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his aides instead tailored their survey of protected sites to emphasize the value of logging, ranching and energy development that would be unlocked if they were not designated national monuments," the Post's Juliet Eilperin wrote.
The documents were released and then later redacted by the agency.
Both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah were drastically reduced in the aftermath of Zinke's four-month review, which was initiated by an executive order issued by President Donald Trump.
The order specifically asked Zinke to review monuments to determine if the designations complied with the 1906 Antiquities Act that says they should occupy the smallest area compatible with the objects to be protected and if those designations interfered with "available uses" of the land under the multi-use policy within federal law. He visited the area in May 2017.
Zinke will make another appearance in Utah on Tuesday. It was announced Monday that the interior secretary will speak at the Days of '47 Rodeo, part of Utah's Pioneer Day holiday. Officials have not said what Zinke's remarks will be about.
The Washington Post story details particular document redactions on Utah's two monuments that Trump reduced last December.
"Department officials also redacted the Bureau of Land Management's assessment that 'it is unlikely' that the Obama administration's establishment of the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument 'has impacted timber production' because those activities were permitted to continue," the Post reported.
Local BLM officials say there is no commercial production of timber on BLM lands within the monument's boundaries, only firewood sales or Christmas tree permits.
The article continued on Grand Staircase:
"In response to questions about Grand Staircase-Escalante, BLM wrote that 'less inventory' of cultural sites would have occurred without the 1996 monument designation, noting more than twice as many sites are now identified each year than before. 'More vandalism would have occurred without monument designation,' it states, noting four visitors centers were established to help protect the area," Eilperin wrote.
Critics of the reductions say the monument review dismissed the benefit of the designations in favor of other uses of the land.
"Ryan Zinke's inability to cover up his dangerous strategy of selling out our public lands while disregarding the facts and the American people is as reckless as the plan itself," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.
"No coverup can ever suppress the fact that the American people overwhelmingly support protecting our national parks, monuments, and public lands," he said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, led the Utah congressional delegation's push to either have the monuments reduced or the designations rescinded altogether.
Trump credited Hatch's prodding for his decision to initiate the review, which a Hatch spokesman said was fair.
"Senator Hatch remains convinced that Secretary Zinke's review was fair and thorough, and the result brought Utah's monuments in line with the original intent of the Antiquities Act," said Matt Whitlock.
The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, chaired by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, released a statement Monday in response to the Washington Post story.
"This article is yet another attempt to distort the facts and distract readers from the real issue at hand. If WaPo would've done its homework, they would know that national monument status, in and of itself, does nothing to increase protections of federal land and, in some instances, can actually be detrimental to the very resources it purports to protect."20 comments on this story
Both the 1996 designation of Grand Staircase by President Bill Clinton and the 2016 designation of Bears Ears by President Barack Obama drove a storm of controversy and outrage among Utah's political leaders who said the presidents abused their authority under the Antiquities Act and ignored local sentiment.
Trump's reductions have since generated a flurry of lawsuits by Native American tribes and environmental groups. Those cases are pending in federal court in Washington, D.C.
Correction: An early version incorrectly attributed a statement from the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources to Rep. Rob Bishop, who chairs the committee.