Published Sunday, July 30, 2017 | 7:33 p.m.
Updated Sunday, July 30, 2017 | 8:33 p.m.
BUNKERVILLE, Nev. — U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke toured two national monuments in Nevada on Sunday and canceled plans for meetings Monday in the Las Vegas area in order to head back to Washington, D.C., for what he said will be a Cabinet meeting involving President Donald Trump's top appointees.
Zinke met reporters outside a rancher's home in Bunkerville, the hometown of jailed cattleman and anti-government icon Cliven Bundy about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. He didn't meet with any Bundy family members.
The head of the department that includes the Bureau of Land Management made it clear he believes in small-sizing national monuments.
"They can't be large tracts of public land or private land or state land," Zinke said.
Zinke toured the Gold Butte and Basin and Range national monuments, which cover a combined 1,500 square miles — more than half the size of Delaware. But he didn't say he's made any decisions about whether to downsize the two monuments created last year by President Barack Obama before he left office.
"Monuments have been adjusted ... 18 times before, Zinke said. "So I don't think there's too much question that a monument can be adjusted. Whether a monument can be rescinded or not, that is a question for the courts."
Trump announced the review of 27 monuments in May, saying the designations imposed by previous presidents amounted to a massive federal land grab. Monument designations protect federal land from energy development and other activities.
"What I've learned in this monument review is that every monument is unique," Zinke said Sunday afternoon.
Gold Butte is the grazing area at the center of the cattle round-up and armed standoff in April 2014 involving Bundy and federal land management agents.
The monument is home to pioneer-era and Native American artifacts, and rare and threatened wildlife, including the Mojave desert tortoise and desert bighorn sheep.
A recent study by the Bureau of Land Management documented nearly 400 ancient rock art panels and more than 3,500 individual petroglyphs scattered throughout the Gold Butte area.
Bundy argues that the federal government has no jurisdiction in such vast rangelands of the West.
He and four of his sons are in jail awaiting federal trial on felony charges that they organized an armed insurrection to turn away Bureau of Land Management agents and contract cowboys and to release cattle collected from the Gold Butte range.
Federal officials say the bureau was trying to enforce court orders issued for Bundy's yearslong failure to pay federal grazing fees.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat, recently made a two-minute videotape and Rep. Jacky Rosen, a Democrat running for Republican Sen. Dean Heller's seat in 2018, sent a letter to Zinke urging him to keep his hands off Nevada's natural treasures.
In addition to preserving cultural history, native wildlife and scenic beauty, Gold Butte and Basin and Range generate more than $150 million annually for Nevada's economy, they said.
"Apparently the 2.7 million public comments submitted in favor of keeping these monuments were not enough to help Mr. Zinke make up his mind," Masto, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee overseeing the Interior Department, said about a public comment period that closed earlier this month.
Outdoor retailer Patagonia took out two full page ads in the state's largest newspaper Sunday in support of the two Nevada national monuments.
On Friday, Zinke took a helicopter tour of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico and held a roundtable event with ranchers, county commissioners and university professors.
Last week, he removed Colorado's Canyons of the Ancients National Monument from the list under review. He previously dropped two others, one in Idaho and one in Washington state. A full report is due next month.
This story has been corrected to say that the Gold Butte and Basin and Range national monuments are more than half the size of Delaware, not twice the size of the state.
Sonner reported from Reno.