National monuments are public lands, not profit centers (UPDATE)


The Native American cliff dwelling that is part of Bears Ears National Monument needs protecting, not drilling.

Going back on yet another campaign statement, Donald Trump has signed an executive order seeking a review of the lands designated as national monuments in the last 20 years.

Let’s be clear: This isn’t about public lands, or listening to a majority of Western voters. This is about cementing his Republican base, sucking up to certain Republican lawmakers, and distracting from the investigation into his Russian ties. It could allow mining, drilling, and development on public lands. It’s also another way of trying to stick a thumb into President Barack Obama’s eye.

Trump’s latest order, one of a flurry of last-minute signings to make his presidency look significant before the 100-day mark, seeks a review of the Antiquities Act, a law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 that authorizes presidents to declare federal lands as national monuments. According to the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association:

The Antiquities Act of 1906 is one of our nation’s most important conservation tools. Used to safeguard and preserve federal lands and cultural and historical sites for all Americans to enjoy, 16 presidents have designated 157 national monuments under this authority.

”One of our nation’s most important conservation tools.” The bad news is that it’s a tool that some Republicans want to undo. The good news is that they probably won’t be able to—at least, not much.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, also known as the Trump bros’ hunting buddy, will review some 30 national monuments designated in the last 20 years, those of 100,000 acres or more, and “recommend which designations should be lifted or altered.” Some of the biggest are in Utah: the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996, and the Bears Ears National Monument, designated by Obama in 2016. Obama issued 29 such designations over his two terms (many for much smaller, historically significant sites). Bears Ears, a 1.3-million-acre parcel with world-class rock climbing, old Native American cliff dwellings, and sacred Pueblo land, will be the first monument Zinke reviews, and he promises to deliver his review in 45 days. He has 120 days to finish the full review.

Making changes to a national monument is rare. According to a story from Reuters:

Zinke said he would seek local feedback before making his recommendations, and added any move by Trump to ultimately reverse a monument designation could be tricky.

“It is untested, as you know, whether the president can do that,” Zinke said.

President Woodrow Wilson reduced the size of Washington state’s Mount Olympus National Monument in 1915, arguing there was an urgent need for timber at the time, one of the few examples of the size of national monuments being changed. …

The Bears Ears area lies near where Texas-based EOG Resources had been approved to drill.

President Dwight Eisenhower also reduced the size of Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Monument by 25 percent. Some national monuments and parks were later assigned to another federal agency or to states, especially if they were deemed to expensive to develop or if they drew too few visitors. Even Mar-a-Lago was once a national historic site.

Assigning national monument status has been a way to avoid public land being used for fossil fuel development. But no president has fully revoked the status of a national monument, and legal experts agree that no president has the power to do so. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld presidential proclamations under the Antiquities Act.

It might be “tricky,” but Zinke will surely try to find a way to have a negative effect on national monuments. And whatever the Utah governor and senators say now, there was plenty of “local feedback” before Bears Ears received its designation. The Center for Western Priorities, a nonpartisan conservation group, has plenty of documented evidence of all of the contacts between the federal government and Utah lawmakers before Bears Ears became a national monument:

New documents … show years of communication and coordination between local Utah stakeholders and elected officials prior to President Obama permanently protecting Bears Ears as a national monument. The documents directly contradict multiple statements from Utah politicians who claimed the monument designation came as a surprise and without the consultation of state leaders.

The Center for Western Priorities issued the following statement from Deputy Director Greg Zimmerman:

“Despite the hardline rhetoric lobbed against the Bears Ears National Monument by Utah politicians, their internal communications make it clear as day: this region is not just deserving of the permanent protections granted last year, but President Obama’s team went to great lengths over several years to coordinate and collaborate with Utah leaders before protecting Bears Ears, the culmination of 80 years of conservation efforts.”

Interior Department documents reveal repeated contacts with Senator Orrin Hatch, Chairman Rob Bishop, Chairman Jason Chaffetz, and their staffs over four years since 2013, including meetings or calls with the Secretary in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016, as well as feedback in the form of technical assistance on their bill, the Public Lands Initiative, which never came up for a vote.

Chaffetz was forced to withdraw his bill to sell off public lands across 10 states after a public outcry. A poll done each year over the last seven years shows that big majorities of Western voters want public lands kept public. According to a January 2017 story in The Denver Post:

Western voters prioritize protecting water, air, and wildlife habitat and opportunities for recreation over increased drilling and mining on public lands. …

Voters surveyed over the past two months in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming also favored improving facilities in national parks and other outdoor destinations, the annual “State of the Rockies — Conservation in the West” poll found. And voters favored investment in production of wind and solar energy using public land, rather than extracting more fossil fuels.

Majorities in every state except Utah opposed efforts to transfer control of federal public lands to states.

“This is the seventh year we’ve done the poll, and we see consistency on these issues. We still see very strong support for Western public lands and conservation,” said Brendan Boepple, director of the State of the Rockies project, based at Colorado College. “Western voters want to stay the course on management of public lands.”

Rose Marcario, president and CEO of the outdoor outfitter Patagonia, said Zinke’s upcoming review “is an assault on America’s most treasured lands and oceans.” According to a CNN story:

“Bears Ears and other national monuments were designated after significant community input because they are a critical part of our national heritage and have exceptional ecological characteristics worth protecting for future generations,” Marcario said. “It’s extremely disturbing to see the Trump administration apparently laying the groundwork to remove protections on our public lands.”

“Show me the money,” said Ashley Korenblat from Public Land Solutions. “We are confident that a fact-based review of the national parks and public lands protected as monuments by the Antiquities Act will show year-over-year economic growth.”

Trump tried to claim that Obama’s actions on national monuments were an “egregious abuse of federal power” allowing the federal government to “lock up” millions of acres of land and water. Control of these lands should go back to states, he suggested.

Yet Trump sang a different tune not long ago. “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great,” Trump said in January 2015 during an interview with Field & Stream when asked about transferring public lands to state control, according to the same CNN story.

This was from Zinke, also from CNN:

“We feel that the public, the people that monuments affect, should be considered and that is why the President is asking for a review of the monuments designated in the last 20 years,” Zinke said, adding that he believes the review is “long overdue.”

Yet during Zinke’s Senate confirmation hearing:

Zinke also told senators during his confirmation process that he was against giving public lands back to the states.

“I am absolutely against transfer and sale of public lands. I can’t be more clear,” he said when Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, asked if, under Trump, federal land would be under “attack by those who would like to take these public lands away from us and turn them over back to states.”

Count on lots of pushback and possible lawsuits from environmental organizations and tribal groups. Outdoor apparel retailer Patagonia became the first to threaten to sue. Daniel Ritzman, the western public lands protection campaign director for the Sierra Club, called the Antiquities Act “one of our country’s kind of bedrock conservation laws.” The National Resources Defense Council called Trump’s executive order “a slow-moving assault on existing monuments.” #MonumentsForAll immediately started trending on Twitter, as did #StandWithBearsEars. This is a statement from Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association:

“America’s national monuments have become the latest victims in this heated political atmosphere.  Any attempt to undo or alter them isn’t just undermining a century-old law, it’s a betrayal of the people who fought so hard for them, and the land and history we’ve all spent generations safeguarding. …

“An attack on one national monument is an attack on all. These public lands are owned by all Americans. Communities are doing their job to protect them. Our elected officials must do the same.”

About a year ago, I was lucky enough to visit all five of Utah’s national parks. I’m certainly not a rock climber and didn’t make it to Bears Ears, but we drove through Grand Staircase-Escalante with its nearly 1.9 million acres, and the only word for its vastness of layered rock is “wow.” Yet Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has signed a resolution asking Trump to shrink the monument’s land footprint. That resolution, and a similar one asking the Bears Ears designation to be rescinded, caused the Outdoor Retailer trade show to pull out of Utah.

You want to talk about private development? Every federal dollar invested in the national parks yields nearly $10 in economic activity. The national parks support 277,000 private-sector jobs and produce $30 billion in economic activity annually. The outdoor recreation industry employs about 7.6 million people and produces $887 billion in consumer spending.

All of that sounds like a better return on investment than ruining the land with private drilling and mining.

Originally posted on Daily Kos, April 30, 2017.

UPDATE: The Interior Department has now released the list of the 27 national monuments that will be reviewed, both on land and in the ocean. They are:

  • Basin and Range, Nevada.
  • Bears Ears, Utah.
  • Berryessa Snow Mountain, California.
  • Canyons of the Ancients, Colorado.
  • Carrizo Plain, California.
  • Cascade Siskiyou, Oregon.
  • Craters of the Moon, Idaho.
  • Giant Sequoia, California.
  • Gold Butte, Nevada.
  • Grand Canyon-Parashant, Arizona.
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah.
  • Hanford Reach, Washington.
  • Ironwood Forest, Arizona.
  • Mojave Trails, California.
  • Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, New Mexico.
  • Rio Grande del Norte, New Mexico.
  • Sand to Snow, California.
  • San Gabriel Mountains, California.
  • Sonoran Desert, Arizona.
  • Upper Missouri River Breaks, Montana.
  • Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona.
  • Katahadin Woods and Waters, Maine.

Several other marine monuments also will be reviewed under an order to prioritize an “America first” offshore energy strategy:

  • Marianas Trench, Pacific Ocean.
  • Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, Atlantic Ocean.
  • Pacific Remote Islands, Pacific Ocean.
  • Papahanaumokuakea, Hawaii/Pacific Ocean.
  • Rose Atoll, American Samoa/Pacific Ocean.

Remember: No president has ever moved to rescind a designation made by a previous president. But Trump always thinks rules and precedents don’t have to apply to him.

NEW UPDATE: The public is now able to add voices to the debate. To comment online, go to the official comment folder at Regulations.gov. and follow the instructions, clicking on the Comment Now! box at the upper right. Mailed comments can be addressed to:

Monument Review
MS-1530
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20240

The comment deadline for Bears Ears has passed, but the deadline for all other national monuments is July 10 at midnight.

NEW UPDATE: Zinke has now finished his report and delivered it to Trump, although the report has not been made public. According to a story in The Washington Post, he’s recommended changes in “at least three” monuments, including two in Utah and one in Oregon. “Environmental groups have made it clear that they will file legal challenges in an effort to preserve sites’ existing boundaries and protections,” the story says.

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