Volume 17, Issue 47
President Trump recently confirmed with lawmakers in Utah that he is planning to shrink the size of two national monuments in the state, according to a press release from the office of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R). The announcement comes in response to the recommendations laid out by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who in April was tasked by President Trump via executive order with reevaluating all national monuments over 100,000 acres in size designated since 1996.
Currently twenty-seven such monuments across the country, including several marine parks, are on Secretary Zinke’s list for proposed policy changes or boundary modifications. “We believe in the importance of protecting these sacred antiquities,” Hatch said in response to the announcement. “But Zinke and the Trump administration rolled up their sleeves to dig in, talk to locals, talk to local tribes and find a better way to do it. We’ll continue to work closely with them moving forward to ensure Utahns have a voice.”
The two national monuments in Utah, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears, were both designated by executive order, the former by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and the latter by President Barack Obama in 2016. Both national monuments have been objects of intense controversy in Utah state politics.
Critics of the monuments, including Sen. Hatch, have argued that the designations represent federal overreach into the state’s affairs and that they unfairly restrict land use, such as mining and grazing, that could otherwise bring money into the state. In the case of Grand Staircase-Escalante, extractive industries hoping to mine the estimated 30 billion tons of coal on the monument’s Kaiparowits Plateau were particularly put off by the designation.
“It sounds like the voices of western communities are finally being heard and the promise to preserve grazing inside monuments might finally be kept by the federal government,” wrote Ethan Lane, director of the Public Lands Council at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in an email to The Washington Post. “This action would be a win for any western community that depends on ranching to stay afloat.”
Supporters of the monuments, including many Native American tribes from the region, argue that the designations are justified for both environmental and culture reasons; not only are Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears breathtaking sights of natural beauty rich in biodiversity, but the land encompassing the Bears Ears monument in particular is considered sacred by many southwestern tribes, including the Diné (Navajo), Hopi, and Ute, from whence the state of Utah gets its name.
“It was always and has been a spiritual place,” said Al Yazzie, a tribal member of the Navajo Nations’s Low Mountain chapter, about Bears Ears. “It’s the white people that came and tried to nullify that. And we had to fight to get it – to play the game the Western way, the government way, to have it reestablished as a national monument, as a sacred place for us.”
Despite President Trump’s proposed cuts, it is not yet clear if the president has the power to modify national monuments without permission from Congress. Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, the president may act to preserve lands that are scientifically, historically or culturally significant, yet it says nothing about the ability to rescind formerly designated monuments and natural parks.
The last president to modify natural monument boundaries was president John F. Kennedy, who in the 1960’s rearranged the borders of the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. However, this occurred before the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which legal experts say may bar the president from reducing or abolishing any preexisting designation.
“The president simply does not have the authority to modify these land and ocean treasures,” said Peter Shelley, a senior counsel at Conservation Law Foundation. “More than 120 legal scholars agree that the purpose of the Antiquities Act is clear: to protect areas of scientific, cultural or historical value – not to decimate them.”
A number of environmental organizations and businesses, including the Wilderness Society, Southern Utah Wilderness alliance and outdoor gear companies Patagonia and REI have threatened to bring legal action against the Trump administration should any changes to the monuments be made.
At the heart of this issue over public lands in the west, which has been raging for decades, is how much power the federal government should have in deciding how a state’s lands are allowed to be used. This is of critical concern in western states because, compared to eastern states, a greater percentage of their land’s are federally owned; no state west of the Rocky Mountains except Hawai’i has less than 29% of their land owned by the federal government. In the east, the state with the most federally owned land is North Carolina at only 11.8%.
Even as President Trump and Secretary Zinke move forward with the monument amendments, it could take five to six years to fully effect them, according to legal experts. “This process will be very legally vulnerable because it will have to deal with all the scientific, environmental and social conclusions produced during the first round of management plan creation,” said Randi Spivak, public lands program director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “This would be a massive hurdle for the administration.”
- Barringer, Felicity and Geoff McGhee. “Tracking Proposed Monument Reductions in the West.” Public Lands & The West Blog. The Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University, 21 September 2017. Web. 28 October 2017.
- Eilperin, Juliet. “Environmental and outdoor groups vow to fight national monument reductions.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post (WP Company LLC), 18 September 2017. Web. 18 November 2017.
- Friedman, Lisa, Nadja Popovich and Matt Mccann. “27 National Monuments Are Under Review. Here are Five to Watch.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 August 2017. Web. 28 October 2017.
- Friedman, Lisa and Julie Turkewitz. “Interior Secretary Proposes Shrinking Four National Monuments.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 August 2017. Web. 18 November 2017.
- Yachnin, Jennifer. “National Monuments: Angry greens promise lawsuits if Trump acts on Zinke memo.” E&E News PM. E&E News, 18 September 2017. Web. 28 October 2017.
- Yachnin, Jennifer. “National Monuments: Trump to slash Bears Ears, Grand Staircase – Hatch.” E&E News PM. E&E News, 27 October 2017. Web. 28 October 2017.