SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — President Donald Trump arrived in Utah on Monday to announce that he is scaling back two sprawling national monuments, a move that is welcomed by the state’s top Republican officials but opposed by tribes and environmental groups.
Trump traveled west to announce his intention to shrink the Bears Ears and the Grand-Staircase Escalante national monuments. Both were among a group of 27 monuments that Trump ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review earlier in the year in response to what the Republican president has condemned as a “massive federal land grab.”
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 Democratic 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.”
Trump’s plan to curtail the strict protections on the sites has angered Native American tribes and environmental groups that have vowed to sue to preserve the monuments. He was making the announcement at the State Capitol, where hundreds of people who oppose the announcement had lined up in Monday’s wintry weather hours before Trump was scheduled to arrive.
In December, shortly before leaving office, Obama irritated Utah Republicans by creating the Bears Ears National Monument on 1.35 million acres (2,100 square miles) of land sacred to Native Americans and home to tens of thousands of archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings.
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.
The president said in April that his order would end “another egregious abuse of federal power” and “give that power back to the states and to the people where it belongs.”
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 attempted to undo these types of land protections. And it could be the first of many changes to come.
Demonstrators at the Capitol held signs that said “Utah stands with Bears Ears” and “Keep your tiny hands off our public lands.” 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.
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.