WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is shrinking two national monuments in Utah, accepting the recommendation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to reverse protections established by two Democratic presidents to more than 3.6 million acres.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he was "incredibly grateful" that Trump called him on Friday to say he is approving Zinke's proposal on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. He and Trump "believe in the importance of protecting these sacred antiquities," but there is "a better way to do it" by working with local officials and tribes, Hatch said.
Hatch's office said Trump said, "I'm approving the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase recommendation for you, Orrin."
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would not confirm that Trump will shrink the Utah monuments, saying she did not want to "get ahead of the president's announcement."
Zinke recommended that the two Utah monuments be shrunk, along with Nevada's Gold Butte and Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou.
Zinke's recommendation, made public in September, prompted an outcry from environmental groups who promised to take the Trump administration to court to block any attempts to rescind or reduce the monument designations.
The two Utah monuments encompass more than 3.6 million acres — an area larger than Connecticut — and were created by Democratic administrations under a century-old law that allows presidents to protect sites considered historic, geographically or culturally important.
Bears Ears, designated for federal protection by former President Barack Obama, totals 1.3 million acres in southeastern Utah on rugged land that is sacred to Native Americans and home to tens of thousands of archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.
Grand Staircase-Escalante, in southern Utah, includes nearly 1.9 million acres in a sweeping vista larger than the state of Delaware. Republicans have howled over the monument designation since its creation in 1996 by former President Bill Clinton.
Trump ordered a review of 27 sites earlier this year following complaints by Hatch and other Republicans that the 1906 Antiquities Act had been misused to create oversized monuments that hinder energy development, logging and other uses. Trump called the monument designations a "massive land grab" that "should never have happened."
The review included sweeping sites mostly in the West that are home to ancient cliff dwellings, towering sequoia trees, deep canyons or ocean habitats roamed by seals, whales and sea turtles.
National monument designations add protections for lands revered for their natural beauty and historical significance with the goal of preserving them for future generations. The restrictions aren't as stringent as national parks, but some policies include limits on mining, timber cutting and recreational activities such as riding off-road vehicles.
No president has tried to eliminate a monument, but they have trimmed and redrawn boundaries 18 times, according to the National Park Service.
Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it was "a disgrace" that Trump was moving to undo Bears Ears, which she described as "the nation's first national monument created to honor Native American cultural heritage."
Suh called it "a travesty" that Trump was "trying to unravel a century's worth of conservation history — all behind closed doors," adding: "The American people want these special places protected."
The Republican-led San Juan County, Utah commission welcomed Trump's action on Bears Ears. The three-member panel objected to the monument designation, saying it was too large and could hurt residents' ability to earn a living from livestock grazing.
They contend there are other ways to protect the area and said the monument declaration attracts more visitors who could potentially damage the ruins and rock art.
"We take heart in our shared belief that the people of San Juan will continue to take special care of these magnificent lands ... for future generations," the commissioners said in a statement.
Davis Filfred, a Navajo Nation lawmaker who supports the monument designation, called Trump's action unfair.
Tribal groups have vowed to sue over any reduction to Bears Ears, but Filfred said Trump "has been sued so many times already I don't know if that means anything to him."
Associated Press writers Michelle Price in Salt Lake City and Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Ariz., contributed to this report.