U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says he’s optimistic about solutions for the state’s national monument controversies after talking with “multitudes” of people during his fourth and final day in Utah.
He’d spent much of Wednesday touring the redrock and sagebrush landscape of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument with a paleontologist and county commissioners from southern Utah.
“I’m more optimistic leaving than when I came,” he said.
In final comments to the press on the Kanab Airport tarmac, Zinke hinted that he sees room for change in how the land and resources are managed. Several times he mentioned the idea of more access -- on backcountry roads and for scout troops.
He said this about coal on the Kaiparowits Plateau, which holds billions of tons of recoverable reserves within the monument:
“I have some in my truck,” Zinke said. “It’s there and, again, the creation of a monument was to protect and not to prevent.”
Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollack said commissioners told Zinke the Grand Staircase should be shrunk to just over one-tenth of its current size.
“Our recommendation is clear,” he said in an interview, “Reduce it down to about 200,000 acres. That’s about all of the scenic value that we’ve been able to identify.”
Commissioners praised Zinke for taking their concerns to heart.
But hundreds of people protested during his four-day visit about their views being excluded. They waved posters and chanted, defending both the Grand Staircase and the new Bears Ears.
Mark Austin, a builder and member of the Boulder-Escalante Chamber of Commerce. It was one of the groups supporting the monuments that asked repeatedly to meet with Zinke but was denied.
“We are that voice which they claim to be most affected by the monument,” he said, adding that he was angered by the snubs. “We’re the business community. We’re the ones who are supposedly not doing well as a result of the monument. We’re doing wonderfully well.”
The Utah monuments top a list of 27 the Interior Secretary is reviewing under a presidential executive order signed in April. His recommendations are due to the president in a month.
Zinke says he hasn’t made any decisions. And protestors still have an opportunity beginning Friday to weigh in by using the regulations.gov web site.