BLANDING, Utah — U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took an aerial tour Monday of one of America's newest and most hotly contested monuments — one of 27 he's been ordered to review by President Donald Trump to determine if they were properly established.
Zinke's tour guide for the helicopter ride over the 1.3-million acre swath of southern Utah with red rock plateaus, cliffs and canyons was Gov. Gary Herbert, one of several prominent Republican leaders in the state who oppose Bears Ears National Monument, created by former President Barack Obama near the end of his term. Later, Zinke also made a short hike to one of several ancient ruins within Bears Ears.
Zinke, Republican who served as Montana's lone congressman until Trump appointed him Interior secretary, is in Utah visiting two of the 27 national monuments he's been tasked by Trump to review to determine if they were properly established.
Asked if he'll visit all the sites, Zinke laughed and said not all of the monuments are as controversial as Bears Ears.
Herbert, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and the rest of the all-GOP congressional delegation consider the monument creation by Obama an unnecessary layer of federal control that will hurt local economies by closing the area to new energy development. They also say it isn't the best way to protect the land.
Trump's April 27 executive order only applies to monuments larger than 100,000 acres created or expanded since 1996, by presidents Bill Clinton (12), George W. Bush (4), and Barack Obama (11).
The list includes the 377,346-acre Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument in Montana, created by Clinton in 2001. Clinton's 2001 expansion of Idaho's 737-525-acre Craters of the Moon National Monument and Washington's 194,450-acre Hanford Reach National Monument are also on the review list.
"The only way to truly learn about and understand a place is with boots on the ground," Zinke posted to Twitter after landing in Blanding for the second day of his four-day trip to see Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante.
The monument review is rooted in the belief of Trump and other critics that a law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt allowing presidents to declare monuments has been improperly used to protect wide expanses of lands instead of places with particular historical or archaeological value.
Conservation groups contend that the monument review puts in limbo protections on areas that are home to ancient cliff dwellings, towering Sequoias, deep canyons and ocean habitats where seals, whales and sea turtles roam.
In Blanding, with a population of 3,400 people, two large banners read, "#RescindBearsEars," reflecting the popular sentiment among residents.
Those who want Zinke to leave Bears Ears alone to preserve lands considered sacred by tribes made their voices heard, too. Tara Benally, a member of Navajo Nation, was standing just outside the Blanding airport wearing a shirt commemorating the December declaration of Bears Ears National Monument.
"We want it left as is. We have history going through there," said Benally, who lives in the nearby town of Bluff. "That was basically my mom's playground as she was growing up."
After his arrival Sunday in Salt Lake City, Zinke was met by about 500 protesters who chanted, "Save our monuments, stand with Bears Ears."
He held a closed-door meeting with a coalition of tribal leaders who pushed for the monument.
A member of a tribal coalition that met with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about his review of the Bears Ears National Monument says the meeting was intense and left him worried.
Davis Filfred of the Navajo Nation said Monday that the one-hour meeting Sunday in Salt Lake City wasn't enough time for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to make their points to Zinke.
Filfred said it seems Zinke is listening more to opponents of the monument than people who want it preserved.
Zinke insisted there is no predetermined outcome of his review, saying he may not recommend the monuments be made smaller or rescinded, and he might even recommend an addition.
"It is undisputed the monuments have been an effective tool to save, preserve our greatest cultural treasures," he said.
Zinke has been tasked with making a recommendation on the Bears Ears monument by June 10, about 2½ months before a final report about all the monuments.
"I'm coming in this thing as a Montanan, a former congressman and now the secretary of the Interior without any predispositions of outcome," Zinke said. "I want to make sure that the public has a voice, that the elected officials have a voice."
The two monuments he's reviewing in Utah are quite large. Created in 1996, Grand Staircase-Escalante is 1.9 million acres, about the size of Delaware. Bears Ears is a bit smaller at 1.3 million acres.
Environmental groups have vowed to file lawsuits if Trump attempts to rescind monuments — a move that would be unprecedented.
Zinke spoke at the trailhead after his hike Monday, saying he wants to make sure Native American culture is preserved at Bears Ears, but cautioned that not all tribal members share the same opinion.
A group of Bears Ears supporters greeted Zinke when he arrived to the trailhead. One woman asked why he only met with tribal leaders for an hour.
Zinke, who was shaking another supporter's hand, said: "Be nice." The woman responded that she always is.
On Tuesday, Zinke plans to tour the Bears Ears area on horseback.
"I think, sometimes, the best way to see things is slow and easy with a horse," Zinke said, referring to his horseback commute through the streets of Washington, D.C., on his first day as Interior secretary.
Missoulian reporter Rob Chaney contributed to this story.