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Tuesday December 12th, 2017 4:41PM

Zinke, Patagonia trade harsh words over national monuments

By The Associated Press
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and outdoor retail giant Patagonia have traded harsh words over the Trump administration's plans to shrink several national monuments — an opening salvo in a legal battle that could last for years.

Patagonia is expected to sue Wednesday, which would follow three other lawsuits aimed at blocking President Donald Trump's order to drastically reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.

The California-based company replaced its usual home page with a stark message, "The President Stole Your Land." Patagonia called Trump's action illegal and described it as the largest elimination of protected land in American history.

Zinke shot back Tuesday, calling the claim "nefarious, false and a lie." He told reporters the land targeted by Trump remains protected because it is still under federal control.

"I understand fundraising for these special interest groups," Zinke said. "I think it's shameful and appalling that they would blatantly lie in order to gain money in their coffers."

Outdoor retailer REI also criticized Trump but in less harsh language.

Trump said he was reversing federal overreach by scaling back the sprawling monuments designated by Democratic presidents.

Tribal leaders, environmentalists and others argue the president does not have that authority and his move jeopardizes a wealth of Native American artifacts, dinosaur fossils and rugged spaces.

Zinke took a defiant tone in a conference call with reporters, saying, "I don't yield to pressure, only higher principle. And sound public policy is not based on threats of lawsuits, it's doing what's right."

He made the comments while discussing the release of a report showing he also wants to reduce two other monuments in the U.S. West and modify rules at six others.

The Interior secretary said he is "fairly confident" Trump will follow his plan to scale back Nevada's Gold Butte and Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou national monuments, in addition to the two Utah sites.

Zinke said the cuts at Gold Butte would mainly come around a water district that should not have been included in the boundaries. He declined to specify how many acres he wants to remove from monument status, stressing that the administration is working with Nevada's governor and congressional delegation to find a solution.

But he did say it would only be a small percentage of the nearly 469 square miles (1,215 square kilometers) that protect desert landscapes featuring rock art, sandstone towers and wildlife habitat for the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise and other species.

Similarly, Zinke declined to give specifics on Cascade-Siskiyou, which protects about 177 square miles (458 square kilometers) in an area where three mountain ranges converge.

Changes will center on recent expansion of the site, which was first created by President Bill Clinton in 2000. Much of the additional land is on private property, while some is on land previously designated for timber production, Zinke said.

Zinke also has recommended allowing logging at a newly designated monument in Maine and urged more grazing, hunting and fishing at two sites in New Mexico. He also calls for a new assessment of border-safety risks at a monument in southern New Mexico.

Patagonia didn't back down after Zinke's fiery response to its post. The company said it has "always viewed public lands as our special interest," company spokeswoman Corley Kenna said.

"And it's odd that Ryan Zinke has no problem with special interests when they're paying for his private jets. We have been fighting for these lands for decades, so that hunters, fishers, hikers and everyone else can use them and help us protect them," Kenna said.

Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said Wednesday that Patagonia's claims are inaccurate because Zinke never took any private planes paid for by special interests.

Zinke has brushed off allegations about misuse of taxpayer-financed travel, including reports that that he took at least three private flights costing taxpayers a total of $20,000 since taking office in March. Zinke has said all his travel is ethical and went through proper due diligence.

Patagonia's statements follow more than a year of activism on the issue.

The company previously joined REI and other outdoor recreation companies in a push to move the industry's lucrative trade show from Salt Lake City to Denver in a high-profile protest over Utah leaders' insistence on getting the Bears Ears designation rescinded and trying to take more control of federal lands.

Zinke argued that Bears Ears is still larger than Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks combined even after being downsized to about 315 square miles (816 square kilometers) while Grand Staircase-Escalante retains about 1,500 square miles (3,885 square kilometers).

A coalition of the Hopi, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni tribes and Navajo Nation sued late Monday to challenge the Bears Ears reduction. The tribes argue that federal law only gives presidents the ability to create a national monument, not downsize one.

Two lawsuits are challenging the Grand Staircase cuts, one by a coalition of environmental groups and the other by a group of organizations that includes the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

___

Daly reported from Washington.

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