House Democrats on Tuesday will challenge their Republican counterparts to press Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to ban mining and drilling in the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
President Trump on Dec. 4 signed a proclamation cutting Bears Ears by more than 1.1 million acres, or 85 percent, and creating two smaller monuments instead.
Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, will ask the panel at a hearing Tuesday to sign a letter urging Zinke to prohibit mining and drilling in the new monument area as well as in the land that was protected before Trump altered the boundaries.
Former President Barack Obama, who created the 1.35-acre Bears Ears National Monument just before he left office, had banned mining and drilling there. Republicans don’t want energy exploration in the new or old boundaries, either.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, introduced a bill last month that explicitly bars mining and drilling in the new monuments and the larger space protected by Obama.
But Democrats have roundly opposed Curtis’ bill, arguing the ban on mining is disingenuous. They say Trump should have explicitly banned mining and drilling in his executive order if he was serious about not wanting it there.
The new boundaries take effect Feb. 2 without the withdrawal of new oil, natural gas, and mining claims.
Though they support Curtis’ provision barring energy development, Democrats oppose the idea that they would be confirming a dramatic scale-back of Bears Ears.
“If we’re serious about preventing mining and drilling in Bears Ears, the administration needs to take concrete action now, not point to a bill that may not cross the finish line,” Grijalva said Monday. “Secretary Zinke needs to step up, not just pay lip service, and my colleagues can help push him in the right direction. We’ll see who means what they say about protecting this land.”
Multiple environmental groups and American Indian tribes have sued the Trump administration over its Bears Ears move, arguing the president acted beyond his power. They note the Antiquities Act does not explicitly give authority to presidents to reduce the size of national monuments, although some have done so on a limited scale. The concept has not been tested in court.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a partnership of five American Indian tribes that is challenging Trump's rollback of Bears Ears, urged Obama to designate it as a monument.
Republicans contend their legislation is the best way to protect the land, because banning mining or drilling in Bears Ears is more stable than Trump or Obama’s executive action, which are subject to the whims of successive administrations.
“If Natural Resources' Democrats were serious about empowering local tribes and maintaining the Obama-set mineral withdrawal, they would support Rep. Curtis’ bill,” said Katie Schoettler, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee, in a statement to the Washington Examiner.
The committee will host a Tuesday morning hearing on Curtis’ bill, featuring testimony from the chairwoman of the tribal coalition, Interior Department representatives, former Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, and others.