SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — President Donald Trump signed a proclamation Monday to scale back two sprawling national monuments in Utah, pledging to “reverse federal overreach and restore the rights of this land to your citizens.”
Trump made his plans official during a speech at the state Capitol, where he was cheered by the state’s Republican leaders who lobbied him to undo protections they contend are overly broad and close off the area to energy development and other access.
Environmental and tribal groups plan to sue to preserve monuments they say are vital to protect important archaeological and cultural resources, especially the Bears Ears National Monument, a more than 1.3 million-acre (2,030-square-mile) site in southeastern Utah that features thousands of Native American artifacts, including ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.
“Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington,” Trump said. “And guess what? They’re wrong.”
Roughly 3,000 demonstrators lined up near the State Capitol protesting Trump’s announcement. The protesters held signs that said, “Keep your tiny hands off our public lands,” and they chanted, “Lock him up!” A smaller group gathered in support of Trump’s decision, including some who said they favor potential drilling or mining there that could create jobs.
The Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments were among a group of 27 monuments that Trump ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review this year.
Bears Ears, created last year by President Barack Obama, will be reduced to 201,876 acres (315 square miles).
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, designated in 1996, will be reduced from nearly 1.9 million acres (nearly 3,000 square miles) to 1,003,863 acres (1,569 square miles).
Trump also met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and toured Welfare Square, a church-run complex in Salt Lake City that aids the poor.
Zinke accompanied Trump aboard Air Force One, as did Utah’s Republican senators, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee. Hatch and other Utah Republican leaders pushed Trump to launch the review, saying the monuments declared by Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton locked up too much federal land.
Trump exited the plane with Hatch and was greeted by cheers from a crowd assembled for the arrival. Hatch joined the president on a rope line, where Trump engaged in some small talk and signed someone’s hat before he was driven to his next stop.
Trump said Monday while leaving the White House that the monument announcement is “something that the state of Utah and others have wanted to be done for many, many years.” He said it is “so important for states’ rights and so important for the people of Utah.”
In December, shortly before leaving office, Obama irritated Utah Republicans by creating the Bears Ears National Monument on land sacred to Native Americans.
Trump signed an executive order in April directing Zinke to review the protections. Trump is able to upend the protections under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the president broad authority to declare federal lands as monuments and restrict their use.
Trump said at the time that he had spoken to state and local leaders “who are gravely concerned about this massive federal land grab. And it’s gotten worse and worse and worse, and now we’re going to free it up, which is what should have happened in the first place. This should never have happened.”
The move marks the first time in a half century that a president has undone these types of land protections. And it could be the first of many changes to come.
Zinke has also recommended that Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou monuments be reduced in size, though details remain unclear. The former Montana congressman’s plan would allow logging at a newly designated monument in Maine and more grazing, hunting and fishing at two sites in New Mexico.
Democrats and environmentalists have opposed the changes, accusing Trump and Zinke of engaging in a secretive process aimed at helping industry groups that have donated to Republican political campaigns.