MONTICELLO, Utah (AP) — Fifth-generation Utah rancher Bruce Adams enjoyed a prime seat next to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as he toured a national monument created on land in Utah that Adams’ ancestors helped settle in 1879.
Adams, a county commissioner, joined Zinke on a horseback ride and a helicopter ride, describing the landscape of Bears Ears National Monument — one of 27 such sites that President Donald Trump has ordered Zinke to review to determine if they were properly established as monuments.
Adams, who opposes a monument in the area, said Tuesday he gave Zinke a cowboy hat bearing the phrase “Make San Juan County Great Again” and told him the monument designation could hurt residents’ ability to earn a living from livestock and agriculture.
Adams was one of many opponents and supporters of Bears Ears who jockeyed for position with Zinke on his four-day visit to Utah. Some Native Americans and environmental groups worried that Zinke listened much more to opponents.
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Zinke met for an hour on Sunday with a coalition of tribal leaders who spent years campaigning for the monument on sacred tribal land that’s home to ancient cliff dwellings and other archaeological sites.
In Bears Ears on Monday, one woman wearing a T-shirt supportive of the monument asked Zinke why he only met with tribal leaders for such a short time.
Zinke, who was shaking another supporter’s hand, turned to face the woman and said: “Be nice.”
The Utah Diné Bikéyah tribal coalition said in a statement Tuesday night that Zinke spent too much time with monument opponents and the hour-long meeting was an insufficient “tip of the hat” to local native people.
Zinke spent time in closed-door meetings Sunday and Monday with Utah’s Republican elected officials, including Gov. Gary Herbert, who has called for the repeal of the monument designation.
Some later accompanied him on the helicopter ride and a short hike in the monument to look at cliff dwellings — as media and Bears Ears supporters were kept at a distance.
State and federal officials said the hike was a private meeting.
On Tuesday afternoon, Zinke, Adams and other government officials took a horseback ride out to twin buttes that give the monument its name. The two-hour ride was another private meeting and wasn’t disclosed by Zinke’s staff.
Adams said Tuesday evening that despite spending so much time with Zinke, he doesn’t know whether the secretary will recommend the monument be rescinded.
In Blanding, with a population of 3,400 people, banners around town say “#RescindBearsEars.” In Monticello, 20 miles north, large yellow stickers in the shape of a bear with the words “no monument” could be seen on the windows of pickup trucks.
Zinke on Tuesday visited a conservation area and ranch in the monument. The Montana Republican later told reporters he hasn’t made up his mind about whether the 1.3 million acre (5,300 square kilometers) area should remain a monument.
However, he did point out that despite the contentious debate in Utah, all sides agree that at least some of the land needs protection.
“I think there’s a solution out there,” said Zinke, who has until June 10 to recommend that Trump rescind the monument, shrink its borders, enlarge it, or leave it as is.
Conservation groups worry that Zinke’s review jeopardizes protections for monuments around the country. Environmental groups have threatened lawsuits.
On Wednesday, Zinke is set to head west and visit Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Created in 1996, it’s the oldest monument on the list of those to be reviewed.
Zinke said multiple times that he wants to hear different points of view. He said Tuesday he has concluded that Bears Ears is becoming a bigger attraction and the government must have a plan to manage visitors and protect archaeological sites.
Heidi Redd, who has been ranching 50 years on lands now within the monument, said she thinks the monument could be smaller but noted that it doesn’t restrict her cattle grazing.
Redd showed Zinke around her ranch and said she worries whether the government will build infrastructure such as bathrooms and install railings around cultural sites to make sure visitors don’t trample the area.
“I would rather we not have a monument if you are not going to fund to protect it. And now the genie is out of the bottle,” Redd said. “There is no way people aren’t coming now.”
Associated Press writer Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.