U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is due to make a recommendation to the White House on Saturday on whether to rescind or resize Utah's Bears Ears monument, setting the tone for the administration's broader study of which lands protected by past presidents should be reopened to development.
The 1.35 million-acre monument, created by former president Barack Obama at the end of his term and named after its iconic twin buttes, is the first of 27 national monuments that will be evaluated by the Department of the Interior after President Donald Trump ordered the review in April.
The deadline for Zinke's recommendation on Bears Ears is June 10, though an Interior Department official did not say when the recommendation would be made public.
Trump had argued that previous administrations "abused" their right to designate national monuments under the U.S. Antiquities Act of 1906, and put millions of acres of land, mainly in western states, off limits to drilling, mining, logging and ranching without adequate input from locals.
Conservation groups, meanwhile, have called Trump's effort to alter existing national monuments illegal and irresponsible, and have vowed to challenge him in court.
"Whatever comes out of these recommendations will give us an insight into how this administration takes its responsibilities to protect public lands and uphold conservation mandates," said Nada Culver, senior counsel of the Wilderness Society, an environmental advocacy group.
The review taps into a heated national debate over Washington's role in America's wildest spaces: environmentalists and tribal groups support federal oversight, but many state political leaders, conservatives, and industry groups say the lands should be generating money for business, creating jobs, or yielding revenue for education and other public services.
Bears Ears was created after years of lobbying by a coalition of five tribes, who say the area is sacred. Republicans, like Senator Orin Hatch of Utah, have argued, however, that Obama's designation of the Bears Ears monument had weakened education funding in the state through its School and Institutional Trust Lands system - which delivers revenues from land development to schools.
While the land encompassed by the Bears Ears monument is not believed to contain huge amounts of coal, oil or gas, several other monuments on Zinke's review list do - making the Bears Ears decision important symbolically to industry groups.
"Who is to say that, in the future, a president couldn’t just put a whole basin under monument designation," said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, representing oil and gas companies.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Bolton)