Honey, I Shrunk the Monuments

Despite overwhelming public support for preserving public lands, the Secretary of the Interior is still recommending Trump trim "a handful" of national monuments. He just won't publicly say which ones—or by how much.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced Thursday that he would not recommend any of the 27 national monuments under review be eliminated. (Sasha/Upsplash)

In a final report sent Thursday to President Donald Trump about the fate of 27 national monuments, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke didn’t recommend any of the monuments be eliminated—but he advised shrinking some of them.

So far, Zinke has recommended downsizing at least three monuments: the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears (he recommended this reduction back in June) and the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante, both in Utah, and Cascade-Siskyou in Oregon, the Washington Post reported Thursday. All three have generated huge controversy. Timber companies want to log areas of the 170,000-acre Cascade-Siskyou monument, which was established by President Bill Clinton but expanded by President Barack Obama. Grand Staircase-Escalante has been wildly debated since Clinton established it in 1996. Though studies have shown that the gateway area around the monument has benefited economically, some locals and politicians still loathe the designation, while energy companies want another crack at its coal and other resources. Bears Ears, meanwhile, has angered some locals who feel it was imposed from above and shuts down resource-extraction opportunities. 

Four months ago, Trump signed an executive order requiring immediate review of all national monuments made or expanded to 100,000 acres by the Antiquities Act since 1996. Since then, six of those 27 monuments—in Montana, Arizona, California, Idaho, Washington, and Colorado—had already escaped the chopping block. Which of the remaining 18 monuments still on the list are targets for resizing, however, is still unknown. Oddly, Zinke would not release the names publicly. (The Washington Post got its information about the Utah and Oregon monuments through sources it kept anonymous.) According to Zinke's report, they include monuments where adherence to the stated goals of the Antiquities Act “were either arbitrary or likely politically motivated or boundaries could not be supported by science or reasons of practical resource management." He would recommend modifications to “a handful” of such monuments, he told the Associated Press. The final decision is now up to the White House, the Department of Interior told Outside.

Other presidents have trimmed their predecessors’ national monuments. According to Zinke’s report, 18 monuments have had their boundaries redrawn in the past. In 1963, John F. Kennedy removed 4,000 acres from existing Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico while also adding 3,000 acres, declaring the changes to be in the public interest. If Trump takes the new advice of his Interior Secretary, however, the scale of the reductions would be unprecedented, and any final decisions will likely be determined in court.

“We don’t think he has the authority to cut these monuments into pieces,” says Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society. While presidents can create monuments, destroying them is “not within the scope of this president’s authority,” she says. The Wilderness Society, among others, will sue to stop it. The state of California, tribes, environmental groups, and businesses including Patagonia have warned they would also sue the administration to block any dramatic action to erode the monuments.

Opponents of the review roasted Zinke on Thursday. “Today’s recommendations cement his legacy as the most anti-park Interior Secretary in history,” says Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the left-leaning Center for Western Priorities

To Culver, of the Wildernes Society, the whole review process felt like a sham. Zinke visited just eight of the 27 monuments in question. He solicited public comments and then seemed to discount them in the report. “And then to not even have the respect for the American public to tell them what he’s recommending? It’s insulting. There’s no other word for it,” she says. “I feel like the American people have taken this a lot more seriously than the Secretary of the Interior.”

Can Trump do what Zinke recommends? The administration seems to think so. “[T]here is no doubt that President Trump has the authority to review and consider recommendations to modify or add a monument,” Zinke wrote in his report. In truth, though, no one really knows for sure. The 1906 Antiquities Act gives the president the power to create national monuments. Nothing in the act gives the president the power to abolish or diminish a monument. Previous reductions have never been challenged in court.

Now the process moves to the president’s desk, where the public has no say—somewhat ironic, given that a stated reason for the review was to give the American public a larger say in the future of the lands in question. What followed is thought to have been the largest two-month collection of opinions on public policy in the history of the federal government: some 2.8 million comments poured in about the fate of the monuments, with the vast majority in strong support. More than 99.2 percent of people who commented opposed the elimination or reduction of the monuments, according to a recent survey.

It’s unclear how Zinke interpreted that outpouring of support as a cry to reduce the monuments. His report acknowledged the broad consensus while also dismissing it as the result in part of motivated special interest groups. Comments “demonstrated a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations,” the report read. “Proponents tended to promote monument designation as a mechanism to prevent the sale or transfer of public land. This narrative is false and has no basis in fact,” it continued. It also made a flawed argument about the downside of public lands:

Proponents also point to the economic benefits from increased tourism from monument recognition…Increased visitation also places an additional burden and responsibility on the Federal Government to provide additional resources and manpower to maintain these lands to better support increased visitation and recreational activities.

In other words, it might cost Uncle Sam too much if people get out and enjoy the monuments. 

Zinke’s report pleased critics of the Antiquities Act. Speaking to reporters just before the secretary’s announcement, Republican Representative Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and perhaps the act’s fierce critic, praised Zinke’s work as fostering a much-needed conversation about the use and—in Bishop’s eyes—abuse of the presidential power. 

In his Thursday press conference, Bishop latched onto the language in the 1906 law that says the designated national monuments “shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management.” That intention has been warped in recent years, he contends, turning presidents into “dictators.” Recent monuments have been 47 times larger than the nation’s first national monuments, he claims. (That number is distorted by the massive Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument in the Pacific, which is nearly 583,000 square miles in size.)

There is nothing wrong with monuments per se, Bishop continued Thursday. “This is about process and the rule of law.... It’s about how we protect resources, not if we protect resources.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Jennifer Rokala as the executive director of the Center for American Progress. She is the executive director of the Center for Western Priorities. Outside regrets the error.

Filed To: Politics / Public Lands / Environment
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