Environmentalists on plan to shrink national monuments: See you in court

Utah officials told Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke what they wanted changed at Bears Ears National Monument. If they get their way, the gray blob would be all that’s left.

The leaked report from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about shrinking or altering 10 national monuments and opening them to mining, drilling, increased grazing, logging, and other development spells trouble for the country’s open land.

But many environmental groups are threatening legal challenges to these moves. According to a story in USA Today:

Ben Schreiber, a political strategist at the environmental group Friends of the Earth, called Zinke’s statement that he would shrink a “handful” of monuments “another in a long line of blatant handouts to the oil and gas industry.” Several monuments under review … overlap with possible coal, oil or natural gas reserves, according to an analysis of federal data by Greenpeace, an environmental group.

“If Secretary Zinke recommends shrinking Bears Ears National Monument it will be another slap in the face to Native American tribes who lobbied for years to get it designated as a National Monument,” Schreiber said in a statement. “Zinke’s action is illegal and he can rest assured that his latest giveaway to corporate polluters will be litigated in the courts.”

Zinke spent nearly four months on a “review” of 27 national monuments to see if past presidents had “overreached” in setting aside large swaths of land for protection. Donald Trump issued an executive order (at the request of oil and coal companies) seeking the review in April, and Zinke delivered his report to Trump in August. But it was kept under wraps until it was leaked to The Washington Post. The Grand Canyon Trust is referring to the draft report as “ZinkeLeaks.”

Utah state officials have been pressing for a change in boundaries—if not the complete reversal of designation—for two national monuments: Bears Ears (designated by President Barack Obama in 2016) and Grand Staircase-Escalante (designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996), and delivered their wishes to Zinke as part of his study. The Utah proposal on Bears Ears would reduce the land by 90 percent—from 1.3 million acres down to 120,000 acres.

Other national monuments on the shrinking and chopping block are Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou, as well as two Pacific Ocean marine monuments—the Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll. The “recommendation” for all of these and four other monuments is to allow outside commercial use, which Zinke referred to in the report as “traditional use” of such lands. Other monuments that would be affected by the “traditional use” Zinke wants to impose are the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine (logging), the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico (grazing and—get this—border security, because of the possibility of “drug smuggling”), the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument in New Mexico (grazing), and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument off the coast of New England (commercial fishing).

Under the 1906 Antiquities Act, presidents have the authorization to designate land, historic places, or culturally significant areas as national monuments. While other presidents have made small alterations in national monuments, “No president has ever stripped protections from monuments in the way Zinke is proposing,” says a story in the Los Angeles Times. “At stake are millions of acres of unique geological formations, rare archaeological artifacts, and pristine landscapes and seascapes.”

People had the opportunity to make their feelings about changes in status to national monuments during a public comment period. As the Los Angeles Times reported:

More than 90% of the 2.7 million Americans who weighed in on the monument review in written comments to the Interior Department were opposed to shrinking borders. Zinke acknowledged the intense opposition in his report to Trump, but attributed it to “a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations.”

In other words, the public comment period was merely window dressing, and Zinke was more than willing to dismiss the overwhelming majority of comments that went against his development agenda. Not exactly democracy in action.

But the best argument for an economic boost is to leave national parks and monuments in their natural state. 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. Those jobs and that spending, not the imposition of harmful activities like mining, will boost the economic growth in areas around national parks and monuments. This report from Medium spells out the benefits of leaving them be:

Monument designations protect the land from being exploited by oil, gas, coal, mining, and timber companies, as well as from other harmful activities. Valid mineral rights and existing livestock grazing are generally preserved when new monuments are created.

National monuments also allow hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, mountain biking, and motorized vehicles on roads.

A recent report from outdoor sporting groups details the widespread use of national monuments by anglers, bird-watchers, river rafters, hikers, and hunters, as well as the broad local support that led to their creation. The lands are well used and well loved by generations of area families, as well as tourists.

National monument protections are a boon to local economies (ask Utah’s Escalante-Boulder Chamber of Commerce), and research shows that Western counties with public lands had healthier economies and created more jobs than those without.

Reams of evidence show monument status helps states and local businesses promote the cultural and natural treasures in their backyards. From gear outfitters to hotels and restaurants, the tourism industry is booming as more Americans seek the wide open spaces and historical context that national monuments provide.

Here are a few of the ways changing boundaries and opening up these national monuments for commercial development will cause harm.

From The Washington Post:

National Geographic explorer in residence Enric Sala, who has conducted scientific surveys in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, said in an email that any effort to restart commercial fishing within its boundaries “would not only harm the ecosystem the monument is supposed to protect, but also its ability to help replenish tuna fisheries around it.”

The recommendation for one national monument in the Atlantic, Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument off the New England coast, was to reopen it to commercial fishing, a recommendation welcomed by the east coast commercial fishing industry. But as reported in a separate Washington Post story:

Mystic Aquarium senior research scientist Peter J. Auster, whose institution pushed for heightened protections for an area 130 miles off the southeast coast of Cape Cod, noted that federal catch data shows that landings of mackerel and butterfish — two of the main species targeted by local fisherman near the monument — have risen this year compared with 2016, when the monument was established.

Auster said that to allow trawlers, pots and pot gear in the monument, which spans 4,913 square miles, “will have significant effects on conservation of marine wildlife in the monument.”

Many western ranchers welcomed the recommendation opening up five monuments to increased grazing, as ranchers already have some grazing rights on these and lots of other public lands. State and federal officials, as well as representatives of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said they felt as if their voices were “finally being heard.” But there are downsides to expanded grazing: denuded streambanks, fouled waters, erosion, and trampled soils.

Changes also would affect and remove protection of Native American artifacts. According to a report from the Grand Canyon Trust:

The state of Utah’s proposed map is outrageous. It would “unprotect” countless antiquities and objects of scientific interest including the oldest known archaeological sites in Utah — both a 13,000-year-old Clovis camp and the state’s oldest rock art site. It also leaves at risk thousands of other sites that the Antiquities Act was designed to protect: cliff dwellings, rock art, ancient roads, largely unexplored treasure troves of dinosaur bones, and ancient sites and landforms sacred to indigenous peoples. Utah’s proposed boundaries even leave the historic Mormon Hole-in-the-Rock Trail vulnerable to mineral development.

If Trump accepts and acts on Zinke’s recommendations, environmental and outdoor groups, Native American tribes, state attorneys general, and outdoor outfitters such as Patagonia are ready to launch litigation. According to a story in The Guardian:

“We will 100% challenge this in court because presidents don’t have the authority to change monuments,” said Kristen Brengel, vice-president of government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association.

“It would be horrific to change these areas of beautiful rivers, canyons and architectural sites. Trees are meant to be vertical in conservation, not horizontal. That’s not how you manage a national park unit.

“We hope the president won’t act on these recommendations but if he does, we will be ready.”

Designating a national monument, while done with the stroke of a pen, is not a quick or uncomplicated process, and making changes to one also couldn’t be done overnight. As the Medium piece pointed out, “Monument designations take years of study, collaboration, and review to ensure they contain ‘historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures’ or ‘other objects of historic or scientific interest,’ as required by the act.” Legal actions against Trump’s potential move will draw out the process even longer.

Changing the boundaries of a national monument once it has been established has never been challenged in court. If Trump carries out Zinke’s recommendations, it will be. And soon.

Originally posted on Daily Kos, Sept. 24, 2017.

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