SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Two Utah congressmen and Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday said they worry President Barack Obama will use the waning days of his administration to name a new national monument in the state, something Utah officials say they plan to fight.
U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz said that he and other members of Utah’s delegation had been having regular, weekly conversations this year with the administration about Utah officials’ opposition to a monument and their support for an alternative lands plan from Chaffetz and U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop.
“It’s going pretty close to radio silent at this point, which does scare us,” said Chaffetz, who was speaking at Herbert’s monthly news conference on KUED-TV with the governor and Bishop.
Herbert said Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough assured in him a Monday phone call that no decision has been made about a proposed monument in southern Utah’s Bears Ears area. The governor added, “Who knows what’s going on behind the scenes?”
Messages seeking comment Thursday were not returned by White House representatives.
A coalition of tribes has argued the sacred Native American site around Bears Ears, named for two twin buttes, needs more protection because it’s under threat from looting and damage from ATVs. They’ve asked Obama to designate a 1.9 million-acre monument.
Obama has not said if he will do so, but Interior Secretary Sally Jewell toured the area this summer and held a public meeting - signals that the administration is considering the proposal.
Republicans and southern Utah elected officials said a monument would be overly broad and close off access to the area. They’re instead urging the area be protected as part of the broad land management plan hatched out by Bishop and Chaffetz.
The Public Lands Initiative was passed by a committee before Congress adjourned for the year. Bishop said it can be introduced and passed by the U.S. House when the session resumes next year and he believes it will win approval in the Senate as well.
Leaders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which is pushing for the new monument, issued a statement Thursday reiterating their call for Obama to protect the area.
“Utah’s elected officials had years to act to protect Bears Ears,” the group said. It called Bears Ears “the most important unprotected cultural landscape in the nation” with tens of thousands of Native American and archaeological sites.
If Obama instead names a monument protecting Bears Ears, Bishop said that could make it harder to pass his broader land use plan, addressing 18 million acres in eastern and southern Utah.
Bishop said he believes President-elect Donald Trump could easily undo the monument once he takes office. It’s unclear whether Trump would undo the monument, but presidents in the past have altered boundaries of previously designated monuments and nothing explicitly prohibits presidents from rescinding designations, Bishop said.
Sen. Mike Lee was originally scheduled to attend Thursday’s press conference but did not appear because he was meeting with Trump at Trump Tower in New York. His spokesman Conn Carroll said the senator wasn’t given a reason for the meeting but is honored to be invited.
Associated Press writer Brady McCombs contributed to this report.
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