How badly will Zinke screw up our National Monuments? Report is due Thursday

  • Published on August 23rd, 2017

Thursday is the deadline for Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke’s review of 27 of America’s 129 national monuments with an eye to rescinding or shrinking them. He’s already announced, without details, that he will recommend one of those, Bears Ears in Utah, be cut back.

By Meteor Blades 

Vermillion Cliffs National Monument photo CC by Eric Betz
Vermillion Cliffs National Monument photo CC by Eric Betz

Update: Zinke has submitted his report to Trump! Read the executive summary here

Our story: Trump admin won’t eliminate national monuments (but Bears Ears still on the chopping block)

All the monuments being scrutinized have been presidentially designated since 1996, and most are more than 100,000 acres. Altogether they cover 11.2 acres on land and 217 million acres in the sea. They were designated by presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Except for one, all are in the 10 most western contiguous states. National Geographic has a wonderful map-and-photo-filled explainer here.

Background: GOP calls to eliminate 10 national monuments & shrink 13 more

In a few hours we’ll see how much attention Zinke paid to the views of the 2.4 million people who commented publicly on the review. The League of Conservation Voters estimates that 80 percent of these comments favored keeping the monuments intact. Others have put the percentage even higher.

Parroting many other rightist critics, Zinke has made a big deal about how President Obama supposedly left out the views of state and local leaders as well as residents in making his decision about monument designations. This is nonsense. In fact, that’s been Zinke’s approach since taking over at Interior. In an op-ed at The Hill Tuesday, Chris Saeger of the public lands conservation groups, the Western Values Project, noted how Zinke has dealt with protecting the sage-grouse and sagebrush lands that are its habitat. The secretary has recommended changes that would “roll back more than a decade of collaborative work”:

At the core of any successful public land management is collaboration amongst stakeholders on the ground, rarely has an effort entailed as much collaboration and cooperation as the process to create the sage-grouse plans. But Zinke has turned his back on collaboration, sound science and the experiences of those who live, work and recreate near and on the sagebrush landscape, instead choosing to be guided by Washington lobbyists. His decision is reckless, counterproductive and is bound to set back true multiple use-management of our public lands for generations to come.

That certainly doesn’t bode well for listening open-mindedly to public comments about national monuments.

In fact, the review is Trump’s nod toward Republican politicians in several Western states—as well as their land-developer and energy industry patrons—who have complained with bitter hostility for decades that the federal government has locked up too much land that they say should be controlled by states. These are the same interests who claim environmental regulations are strangling business on most federal lands, not just national monuments. Given who’s running things in Washington, these views of corporations and their legislative and gubernatorial marionettes seem likely to count for more than the comments of hoi polloi.

But perhaps we’ll be surprised.

Most Democrat politicians in the West are not happy with the ideological underpinnings of the review or its potential consequences. Matthew Renda reported in July:

“Erasing America’s national monuments from the map would devastate our thriving outdoor recreation economy, which generates 68,000 jobs and $6.1 billion of annual economic activity in New Mexico alone,” said New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich. “And it could easily lead us down a slippery slope toward the selloff of our public lands to the highest bidder and massive giveaways of public resources to special interests.” […]

“The Trump administration’s process to roll back our national monuments is not rooted in Western values, where we sit down, compare priorities, and find common ground,” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said. “Throughout the comment period, Coloradans and people across the country agreed, sending a unified message: Leave our national monuments alone.”

Zinke and his team have been working on the review for the past four months since Pr*sident Trump issued an executive order on the matter in April. From Maine to Oregon, the secretary has personally visited eight national monuments potentially on the chopping block. So far, he has announced that six monuments will be spared the ax. None were those he visited for the review.

The six:

  • Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho
  • Hanford Reach National Monument in Washington state
  • Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado
  • Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana
  • Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona
  • Sand to Snow National Monument in California.
Cedar Mesa, part of Bear Ears National Monument
Cedar Mesa, part of Bear Ears National Monument in Utah.

But, in a five-page June 13 interim report that was actually one page of intent and four of boilerplate, Zinke recommended that the newly designated 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah should be made smaller. He proposed no specific acreage. That report riled environmentalists and especially the five American Indian tribes that worked in the coalition that finally succeeded in getting Bears Ears designated last December. The tribes had wanted the monument to encompass 1.9 million acres.

Background: US officials explain to Indians why we have to take back their land. Again.

Jill Eilperin and Susan Levine have reported today on the the 15 most endangered national monuments under the review.

Although it’s possible, it seems highly unlikely Zinke will recommend that any monuments be fully rescinded. But Bears Ears will almost certainly not be the sole monument recommended for reduced acreage. As environmental advocates noted when announcements about the six spared monuments were made, the review process is opaque, much like everything else going on in the Trump regime.

Another example of possible shrinkage is the Basin and Range National Monument in Nevada. As Zinke has visited the 704,000-acre site, designated in 2015 by President Obama. Fifteen members of the 70-member Congressional Western Caucus—69 Republicans and Oregon’s most conservative Democratic representative, Kurt Schrader—sent a letter earlier this year seeking a reduction of the monument to just 2,500 acres. You can read background on the 20 monuments still to be decided here.

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument
Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico.

Whatever recommendations Zinke makes in the final report will inevitably spur litigation. That’s because the Antiquities Act of 1906 under which national monuments can be designated by the president or Congress has never been fully tested in court.

Many environmental lawyers say the president cannot rescind a predecessor’s designation of a national monument. Whether he can shrink them is less certain. The Federal Land Management and Policy Act of 1976 clearly says the Secretary of Interior can’t do any shrinking. But it’s not clear from the law’s wording if the president can do so. A legislative report issued by the House committee that considered FLPMA when it was just a bill is clear about lawmakers’ intent, stating that the act was drafted with the idea that it “specifically reserve to the Congress the authority to modify and revoke withdrawals for national monuments created under the Antiquities Act.” That presumably could have a major impact on any court ruling in the matter.

But while the president’s authority is unclear, there is no doubt that Congress has the authority to reduce the size of national monuments. Zinke has said he will urge Trump to push Congress to do so. The House could probably be counted on to approve any reduction recommendations. But this would be a tough fight in the Senate, despite the Republican majority.

(Originally appeared at DailyKos.)

About the Author

Meteor Blades is a writer and contributing editor at DailyKos. He believes there is something profoundly wrong with our system. - the unchecked accumulation of wealth and power into the hands of a very small group of corporate business interests has contributed to the wholesale corruption of our political system. For an understanding about the level of corruption in our country, he encourages you to view these two PBS documentaries: (1). ,The Untouchables; (2) The United States of ALEC.