Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will begin accepting public comment today as he begins a review of 22 national monuments across the country and five marine national monuments.
Five of those monuments that cover a total of 4.5 million acres are located in the Four Corners area.
The public comment period is 30 days for all monuments except Bears Ears, the 1.3 million-acre monument in southern Utah designated by former President Barack Obama in the final days of 2016. The public will have only 15 days to submit comments about that monument to comply with an accelerated review timeline required by President Donald Trump's April 26 executive order.
The short time window has raised some eyebrows. Usually comment periods in federal decision-making processes are 30 to 45 days, said Bill Hedden, the executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust, which has been a strong advocate for Bears Ears.
The 15-day time window "sort of gives a good indication of how seriously they are taking the public's input. They know who they want to talk to," Hedden said.
Hedden also took issue with the Interior Department's statement that the comment session associated with Zinke's review is the "first ever formal public comment period for members of the public to officially weigh in on monument designations under the Antiquities Act of 1906."
A highly public campaign addressing protection for Bears Ears began in 2011 with an effort by the Native American-led nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah, he said. In 2015, an intertribal coalition began to develop a more formal proposal for a Bears Ears national monument that received ample media coverage, he said. Then in both 2015 and 2016 Obama Administration officials made visits to the area, holding a public meeting last year that local news agencies reported was attended by more than 1,400 people
That makes a six-year period when people could have registered their support or opposition for the monument with their elected officials, he said.
"Everybody knew about Bears Ears," Hedden said.
He acknowledged, however, that other monument designations weren't preceded by the same open public process, most notably Grand Staircase-Escalante established in 1996 and another monument under Zinke's review.
Zinke visited Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah this week and said the question isn't whether the land needs to be preserved, but whether a monument status is the best way to do it.
Within 45 days of April 26, Trump's executive order requires Zinke to produce an interim report with its review of Bears Ears and recommendations for Presidential actions, legislative proposals or other actions related to the monument. It requires a final report of Zinke's review of the other monuments after 120 days.
Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or email@example.com