Albert Holiday was standing at a remote junction in Utah’s red rock desert. He was part of a group of Utah Dine Bikeyah members chanting in Navajo at passing cars: “Where is Zinke?’ and ‘Go Bears Ears!” They were hoping to catch the attention of U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on his way to another meeting.
“Zinke just went by. We didn't have a chance to talk to him this morning. We're just sitting on the side of the road and holding our signs.”
Like pretty much everyone else in southern Utah, Holiday and his group had been asking for months to meet. And, like opponents of the Bears Ears National Monument, monument supporters feel like their voices haven’t been heard.
Even after former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell came to Utah to listen to stake holders. And even though President Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke visited two weeks ago as part of a broader national monument review.
Despite this kind of high-level attention, many people still say their concerns are being ignored.
“I thought Zinke came down here to talk to the grassroots people, like us Navajo that used to live on this land.”
Holiday was one of the monument advocates who got to meet with Jewell when she visited the area last summer. She listened to tribal supporters share ideas, and propose something historic: having Native Americans help manage a national monument.
“She walked with us, and sat in a teepee with us and talked in there with us,” Holiday said. “She's a lot different than this visit here. She listened to us. She cried and we cried with her. And she’s really a humble lady. But not this year.”
Jewell spent lots of time with monument critics and advocates. She met privately with locals, state officials, tribal members and environmental groups. More than 1,000 people showed up at her listening session in Bluff.
“A great big thank you for all of the perspectives you have brought to the table,” she told the crowd.
It was hot, over 100 degrees, and she praised the crowd for keeping their cool in a cramped community center for more than three hours.
“Thank you for being respectful,” Jewell said in wrapping up the meeting. “I know that there are different points of view, and that’s what we wanted to hear. We wanted to hear different points of view.”
Then, a few months later, President Barack Obama created the national monument that included a management role for local tribes. But, in a bow to opponents he designated a smaller area than first requested, about half a million acres less.
But that concession wasn’t enough for some. Leland Pollack, a Garfield County Commissioner and national monument critic, was among the Utah political leaders who spent the day with other state leaders showing the new interior secretary the 20-year-old Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. He was on the Kanab Airport tarmac a couple of weeks ago for Zinke’s send off and felt optimistic.
“He was sent out here to listen to the local elected officials, which is music to our ears,” said Pollack. “And we are, I believe, very like-minded.”
The commissioner said the time with Zinke was completely different from his experience with Jewell last year, when he realized Utah was about to get another national monument, like it or not.
“Basically, that was her tone and you could see it coming, and there was nothing that was going to change that,” he said.Pollack sees Bears Ears and Grand Staircase as presidential overreach. So, he was pleased to hear that Zinke is reviewing 27 national monuments. He’s one of the Utah leaders who want the Trump administration to shrink Grand Staircase and rescind the monument that appeared inevitable during Jewell’s visit.
“This is the polar opposite, about face, today [compared with] what I was told from her last fall.”
Zinke held no public meetings during his visit to Utah. And he ignored requests from many pro-monument groups, like the Boulder-Escalante Chamber of Commerce. Instead, the business group gathered monument supporters outside the airport as he got ready to leave Utah. Protesters chanted as Zinke answered reporters’ questions on the tarmac.
“I have met with hundreds of people shook hands from all sides,” he said. “So, if I missed one group. That's the breaks.”
Zinke resisted the suggestion he’d shut out monument supporters. He said he’s welcoming comments online.
“Regulations-dot-gov. Regulations-dot-gov I'm not going to make any decision until we review the public process to include those that go to regulations dot gov,” he said.
“I think everyone's comment is important and the president has made it clear. Your voice matters. And that's why I'm here.” Back in Washington, Zinke would find a letter from Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM. Heinrich asked the Interior Secretary to extend the time for comments and for a public hearing. He pointed out that for Navajos, in particular, access to the Internet can be limited. And many of them hold to an oral tradition rather than written communication.
But, by Monday, Heinrich had gotten no answer and the online portal had received around 60,000 comments. The final deadline is May 26 for Bears Ears comments. The site will field comments on other national monuments through July 10.