Secretary Zinke’s Recommendation: All National Monuments Should Stay, Some Should Be Downsized

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommends downsizing national monuments in the West, but which ones and by how much remains unknown

Bears Ears National Monument
Bears Ears in Utah is one of the more controversial national monuments under review.Wiki

After months of review, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended to the Trump Administration that boundary adjustments be made to some national monuments in the West, but what monuments exactly, and the scale of those adjustments, are not being released to the public just yet.

Zinke told The Associated Press on Thursday, that he's recommending none of the 27 monuments under review be eliminated, sold off or transferred to the states, and public access for hunting, fishing, and grazing should be maintained or restored. "You can protect the monument by keeping public access to traditional uses," said Zinke.

Which monuments will be effected has not yet been released to the public. Instead, the Department of Interior released a two-page summary that is woefully short on details. Conservation groups rallied against the lack of transparency on Thursday.

“It’d be really nice to see the actual recommendations,” said Joel Webster, Director, Center for Western Lands at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The Secretary has said very little, and provided no detail.”

secretary zinke
Secretary Zinke touring Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada.Twitter

Last month, the Department of Interior announced that six national monuments were removed from the review process, and effectively safe from change, including Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks, Idaho’s Craters of the Moon, Washington’s Hanford Reach, Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Colorado’s Canyon of the Ancients and California’s Sand to Snow National Monument.

Citing officials close to the discussion, the Bangor Daily News reported that Maine's Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, created just last year by Obama, will remain intact without any boundary adjustments, but "there will be some changes on allowable uses," such as non-commercial wood cutting.

On a call with the press late Thursday, Matt Lee-Ashley, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, said coal reserves in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument have long been eyed by the energy industry. Removing the monument designation would open up the currently protected federal ground to “mining, drilling, logging, and [provide] no guarantee of public access,” he said.

Some monuments also protect ground that is significant to Native Americans. Bears Ears, also in Utah, contains an estimated 100,000 archeological sites.

Republicans in The Beehive State celebrated the news on Thursday. "I am encouraged by the recommendations to revise previous designations," Rep. Rob Bishop told The Hill. The push to reevaluate monuments—and transfer or sell federal public land—is hottest in Utah. Many locals felt disenfranchised by President Clinton's surprise designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996 and again by President Obama's protection of Bears Ears in his last few weeks in office.

Yet even if the worst-case scenario plays out, and vast swathes of the Western monuments are put on the chopping block, it’s not entirely clear whether President Trump has the power to do the cutting.

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine.Wiki

Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law in 1906, which gives the president the authority to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures and other objects of historic or scientific interest” against development, but nothing in the act itself addresses altering monument boundaries, or undoing actions of previous presidents.

Nada Culver, Senior Counsel to the Wilderness Society, said any reductions by the Oval Office would be challenged in court, as adjusting the boundaries of national monuments requires an approval by Congress—a reading of the law many conservation and environmental groups agree with.

Historically, there have been 19 boundary adjustments since 1906, though most were small and offset by an enlargement elsewhere. Some of these adjustments were made by Congress and others by presidents—yet none were ever challenged in court. The most recent significant adjustment happened under President Kennedy. The largest—313,280 acres removed from a monument in Washington State—happened in 1915 under President Woodrow Wilson, for expanded logging to support shipbuilding in World War I.

devils tower
Devil's Tower in Wyoming is the first declared national monument. It was designated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.Wiki

The problem with allowing the Executive Branch to change existing monument boundaries isn’t so much a physical line in the sand, but the precedent such a move could set. Any current or future president could theoretically roll-up a monument with the stoke of a pen, without any Congressional or public oversight. That is clearly not the intent of the 1906 Antiquities Act. Congress has had several opportunities to clarify the law in the last 120 years, attorney Culver said, but still has not made removal or deletion powers specific.

So, if the Trump Administration adjusts even an acre of monument ground without the approval of Congress, you can bet a Utah elk hunt that lawsuits will fly. Federal court will ultimately decide the fate of these national monuments under review. Regardless of what happens in court, it will feel like a sad postscript on otherwise banner conservation legislation, drafted by Teddy Roosevelt himself.