WASHINGTON The issue of whether to preserve, shrink or revoke the protected status of two dozen U.S. national monuments drew more than 2 million public comments ahead of a report to be issued by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to President Donald Trump next month.
In April, Trump ordered the Interior Department to review 27 national monuments created since 1996, with an eye to rescinding or shrinking the size of some of them to increase development opportunities.
Zinke said on Tuesday that more than 1.2 million comments were received on the Regulations.gov website and thousands more were received via traditional mail. Environmental groups have said more than 2.5 million comments were submitted in total by Monday's deadline.
Over the last few weeks, Zinke visited national monuments under review in Utah, Maine and other places to meet with different stakeholders.
"After hearing some feedback, I'd like to remind and reassure folks that even if a monument is modified, the land will remain under federal ownership," Zinke said in a statement, adding that he remains opposed to the sale or transfer of public lands.
"Nothing in this review changes that policy," he said.
Last month, Zinke made a preliminary recommendation to Trump to reduce the size of the 1.35 million acre (5,463 square km) Bears Ears monument in Utah, the country's newest monument, over the objections of a coalition of Native American tribes who say the area is sacred tribal land.
His report said that the Antiquities Act, used by past presidents to declare monuments, should cover the "smallest area compatible" with protecting important sites.
Democratic senators representing western states on Tuesday urged Zinke to leave the monuments in tact, saying that they should not downsized or rescinded for energy or other economic development.
Nevada Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto said national monuments in her state - including two under review Gold Butte, and Basin and Range - contribute to a "booming" outdoor recreation industry that supports 150,000 jobs and generates close to $15 billion in economic activity.
"We have to fight to protect against any privatization," she said in a joint press conference with other Democratic senators.
Democratic Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz, whose state is home to the Papahānaumokuākea marine monument, which is under review, said should Zinke recommend changes to any monument, he will face legal battles.
"The Antiquities Act is a very strong and clear statute. We will win on that basis," he said.
(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici)