Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke grew up in Whitefish, Montana, where, over a few decades, he watched a once-strong timber industry wither. In 1990, Montana produced more than 1.4 billion board feet of lumber; by 2014, output was just 600 million board feet. U.S. timber has declined thanks to a cocktail of regulatory, economic, and social pressures, but Zinke’s diagnosis isn’t so nuanced. In a 2015 Missoulian op-ed, the then-representative for Montana blamed the industry’s woes on “predatory lawsuits funded by out-of-state special-interest groups” and “federal regulatory constraints.”
Zinke’s report on national monuments, delivered to President Donald Trump in August and recently leaked to the Washington Post, identifies the same villains. His analysis of monuments established after 1995 blasted prior presidents’ use of the Antiquities Act to create landscape-scale monuments. Overwhelming public support for the monuments was the result, Zinke wrote, of a coordinated national campaign by environmental groups, and did not indicate local approval.
His analysis recommended shrinking six monuments and changing management practices in another four. Objects worthy of protection, the report stated, should be defined in the narrowest possible fashion—a single archaeological site, for example, instead of a landscape that contains thousands of such sites. Zinke emphasized promoting “traditional uses”—he specifically lists mining, grazing, timber harvest, and commercial fishing—in all 10 monuments.
When Zinke talks about “traditional uses” he sounds a lot like James G. Watt, the Interior Secretary under President Ronald Reagan. Inspired by the Sagebrush Rebellion, Watt viewed public land as an industrial asset, and he acted accordingly: the area of federal land leased to coal mines increased fivefold during his tenure. Zinke echos that thinking when he writes, “It appears that certain monuments were designated to prevent economic activity such as grazing, mining, and timber production rather than to protect specific objects.”
By framing monuments as something that “especially harms rural communities”—while not acknowledging the tourism, research, and federal jobs they can bring—Zinke seems to embrace the idea that extraction is the only suitable way for rural people to make money.
Yet most national monuments already allow those activities to take place within their borders, with proclamations explicitly preserving existing grazing, water, and timber rights. Take Bill Clinton’s 1996 Grand Staircase-Escalante proclamation, which didn’t restrict any existing rights: every drilling permit and grazing lease was valid as long as there was gas to drill and grass to eat. What the monument designation did was limit future development, as has been the historical norm. Grand Staircase land was "withdrawn from entry, location, selection, sale, leasing, or other disposition."
Resource industry groups, though, argue that preservation of a right rarely means continuation of the right. According to Travis Joseph, president of the American Forest Resources Council, monument proclamations that preserve commercial forestry permits are mostly symbolic. “What’s actually happening in practice is the environmental community will file a lawsuit on those timber sales, and usually drag those out so far that they’re either canceled or modified until they don’t make economic sense any more,” he says.
Zinke's report also claims tribal use of monuments is restricted, namely "cultural practices such as wood and herb gathering" due to a lack of access. This ignores not only the on-the-ground reality—Barack Obama’s proclamation explicitly mentions collecting firewood, medicinal herbs, and berries—but also the role of tribes in establishing and, eventually, managing Bears Ears. “The report was basically an attack on tribal sovereignty, on tribal voice, on the history that exists at Bears Ears,” says Nizhone Meza, legal director of Utah Diné Bikéyah, the organization that first proposed the Utah monument.
By framing a monument as something that “especially harms rural communities”—while not acknowledging the tourism, research, and federal jobs they can bring—Zinke seems to embrace the idea that extraction is the only suitable way for rural people to make money. Other economic drivers are an afterthought. Outdoor recreation—despite the $887 billion in national revenue it generates—is barely mentioned in the report, which instead worries about the negative effects of tourism: “...there is evidence that an unintended consequence of monument designation is an increased threat of damage or looting of objects due to higher visitation.”
How exactly Zinke would like to see the monuments change is unclear. The report is heavy on principle but lacking in specifics. It includes no maps, no suggestions for border adjustments, and no clarity on the extent to which resource extraction should be allowed. (An Interior spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.) Should Trump choose to act on Zinke’s recommendations, another study on appropriate action would likely have to take place. The task of determining monument borders could fall to third parties such as the Utah governor's office who hope for a 122,000-acre—rather than 1.35-million-acre—Bears Ears.
Environmental groups are concerned that very little of that analysis has happened yet, a fact that could have legal ramifications if Trump acts to shrink the monuments. “To have a slapdash report like this be used as justification for reducing the monument boundaries or protections would be crazy,” Dave Willis of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council, which advocated for the Cascade-Siskiyou expansion, told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Zinke also suggested the creation of a 130,000-acre monument in the Badger-Two Medicine region of Montana, land that the Blackfeet Nation has long sought to protect. The report’s justification of the monument ironically parrots the call Navajo, Hopi, Ute, and Zuni leaders issued for Bears Ears protection. “This area of the Rocky Mountain Front...is considered sacred by the Blackfeet Nation.” There’s no mention of specific artifacts, and coupled with the adjacent Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park, Badger-Two Medicine would certainly classify as protection of an entire landscape.
If established, the monument would likely preserve traditional Blackfeet use of the land. Given Zinke's report, any monument might allow what the Blackfeet consider a non-traditional use, too: widespread timber harvesting.