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Interior Secretary visits Bears Ears National Monument to decide its fate

BEARS EARS NATIONAL MONUMENT -- Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke hiked past the lines of protesters out into the desert landscape.

Accompanied by Governor Gary Herbert, Congressman Rob Bishop, members of the Utah State Legislature and news reporters, Zinke took in his surroundings.

"It is drop dead gorgeous country, no question about it!" he declared. "Beautiful vistas."

The Secretary of the Interior is here in Utah's most controversial national monument to help decide its fate. He's spending the next couple of days in San Juan and Kane counties as part of a review of national monuments ordered by President Trump.

Zinke is touring Bears Ears National Monument on Monday and Tuesday. He'll then stop by Grand Staircase-Escalanate National Monument on Wednesday.

The president signed an executive order to review the use of the Antiquities Act, used to create national monuments. Bears Ears was basically the catalyst, having been created by President Obama at the end of his term.

The Bears Ears National Monument, seen from the air. The environmental group Eco-Flight took FOX 13 on a flight around the controversial national monument on Monday, May 8, 2017. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

At 1.35 million acres, the newly created national monument outraged Utah political leaders.

"I think there is a reverence for and a desire to be good stewards of the land and I think monuments are more restrictive," said House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper. "Access becomes a lot harder."

Environmental and Native American tribal groups argue the area deserves protection. Filled with ancient petroglyphs and dwelling sites, they argue it is archaeologically rich and culturally sensitive.

"We call it holy places. We have offerings, we have prayer ceremonies done. We have places where our ancestors are buried. This is a sacred place," said Woody Lee, a Navajo Nation Council District Liaison.

Utah political leaders are greeted by protesters as they return from a hike with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in Bears Ears National Monument on Monday, May 8, 2017. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said locking up so much land in a national monument designation hurts the potential for development and hurts the local economy. He urged President Trump to rescind it.

"I want him to see what the economy and San Juan looks like. I want him to see how the monument might affect school children and see how it might affect the people who live here and work here every day of their life," Adams told FOX 13 as he waited to meet with Zinke.

Stickers and posters against Bears Ears National Monument in Blanding, Utah. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Zinke said he was not an advocate for selling public lands (some Utah lawmakers have advocated such a move). Asked by FOX 13 if Bears Ears should be preserved, Zinke replied: "Yes."

"Of course what I’ve seen should be preserved. The issue is whether the monument is the right vehicle," he said. "Whether it’s not the right vehicle, it’s public land."

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke hikes through Bears Ears National Monument on May 8, 2017. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Zinke insisted he is listening to all sides as he makes his recommendation to President Trump. He has 45 days to decide Bears Ears and has asked for public comment online by May 12.

Make a public comment on Bears Ears, national monuments here

If he recommends rescinding Bears Ears, tribal and environmental groups said they will sue.

"We’re going to have to try to do something. I mean, we’re not going to take this lying down," said Kenneth Maryboy, the Mexican Water Chapter President of the Navajo Nation.