SALT LAKE CITY — When then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell toured Utah and visited San Juan County at a region called Bears Ears, the Native American tribal leaders and conservation group leaders were excited and optimistic.
There was even a huge gathering in a grassy meadow at Bears Ears where Jewell posed for a group photo with the tribes and little children who gave her homemade cards with painted bears' ears.
The ranchers and county commissioners had pained looks on their faces and glumly pointed to maps during Jewell's 2016 visit. They didn't go to the powwow.
One commissioner shook his head and quietly said the Obama administration's mind was made up. The visit was just for show, he said, and a few months later the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument came into being.
In 2017, during then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's visit to the same region, everyone switched sides. Native American tribal leaders held signs with angry slogans at rural intersections, shouted at Zinke, got up in his face, and conservation leaders said he arrogantly shunned them.
Elected county elected leaders were ecstatic, went with him on Black Hawk helicopters for an aerial view of the vast region and rode with Zinke on horseback through Bears Ears country. His critics didn't accompany them.
Six months later, Zinke's boss, President Donald Trump, shrunk Bears by 80 percent and also reduced Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
"We asked a president for the first time in the history of Utah to do something and he did … and a president actually listened to the great state of Utah," Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock testified before a congressional committee on Wednesday.
How monuments are created and how they are dismantled or reduced dominated that three-hour congressional hearing, coincidentally one day after Trump signed into law the most sweeping public lands conservation bill in a decade.
Some decried the 1906 Antiquities Act as an abusive use of power to strip the West, in particular, of access to vital natural resources. Proponents say it is the only way to keep the hands of greedy exploiters off land that needs to be preserved for future generations.
In the aftermath of a monument designation rests the legal question before the courts: To what extent, if any, can it be undone?
"There is no process in the law for realignment or adjustments. That's the problem," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the ranking member on the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources.
The hearing on the monument review and subsequent reductions was convened by the new chairman, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who said the Trump process was "hollow and improper."
A parade of Native American tribal representatives slammed the administration for ignoring tribal wishes, trampling on protections for sacred objects and land that contains the remains of their ancestors.
Instead, they said what the Trump administration did was kowtow to the greed of corporate industry interests in a move that will most assuredly result in injury to the land and is blatantly illegal.
"President Trump’s unlawful action left hundreds of thousands of priceless and significant cultural, natural and sacred objects unprotected. There are too many objects, sites and resources left unprotected to list them all here," said Tony Small, vice chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe.
"Not to mention the cultural practices and traditional tribal intellectual knowledge that would be lost or diminished. There is absolutely no rational basis to exclude these sites and objects while including the sites and objects that are within the two small monument units."
Trump's "unlawful" actions ignored the ugly reality of what is happening on the ground in southeastern Utah, said Clark Tenakhongva, Hopi Tribe vice chairman.
"The Hopi Tribe is fully aware that over the last few decades the archaeological, natural and geographic resources in the region have been severely impacted by looting, industrial development, and increased motorized and recreational access, including inappropriate all-terrain vehicle use."
Ed Roberson, director of the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, said two rangers are assigned to protect what was once the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears designation.
"Congressional action is far better than the Antiquities Act," said Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, because a designation through the act doesn't necessarily equate to additional funding, and just because it is a monument, doesn't mean it will get more protection.
Aside from Trump's actions related to the two monuments in Utah, the debate rested on the merits or detriments of U.S. presidents exercising their authority under the Antiquities Act.6 comments on this story
Bishop said the massive land bill signed into law Tuesday by Trump is the "right way" to create new monuments or national parks, not by surreptitious action that takes governors by surprise via the Antiquities Act.
But Grijalva maintains the Antiquities Act is "not broken."
Legislation is surfacing in response to this issue, in addition to the debates.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., is running a measure this session to restore Bears Ears National Monument, while Bishop is floating a bill that would limit national monument designations to 10,000 acres or less.