The president is quietly taking aim at our national monuments

October 4, 2017

The Trump administration, urged on by well-funded ideologues and fossil fuel interests, is engaged in an unprecedented effort to destroy our country’s system of public lands. This effort is not about our shared national interest, and if left unchecked it will eventually reach your back yard.

Since taking aim at national parks would stop this campaign in its tracks, the administration has instead tried to strip away our national monuments, which are no less popular but are often less well understood. If President Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and their allies on Capitol Hill have their way, few monuments – whether they protect historic Native American sites, iconic natural wonders or world-class wildlife habitats – will be safe over the long haul.

National monuments can be created either by an act of Congress or by presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Teddy Roosevelt signed the law, which he used multiple times, to give presidents the power to designate a monument when Congress can’t or won’t move fast enough.

The Antiquities Act has been central to our nation’s environmental history. The Grand Canyon was proclaimed a national monument before it was declared a national park. Nevertheless, a revisionist version of history now making the rounds claims the Antiquities Act is abusive and national monuments are inflaming general public opinion. As we’ll see, this is not true.

Earlier this year, President Trump ordered Secretary Zinke to “review” a list of 27 national monuments and four national marine monuments with an eye to recommending changes to their size or management status. After visiting fewer than half of those sites before his August deadline, Zinke recommended shrinking four monuments – Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears, both in Utah; Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon; and Gold Butte in Nevada – and two marine monuments.

Zinke and his backers argue that Trump can do this with no more than the stroke of a pen. Writing recently in the Washington Post, Jonathan Wood – an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Exxon dating back two decades, and the Property and Environment Research Center, which has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in Koch network funding – argued that Trump should be able to redraw monuments without Congress as he sees fit since, after all, “Nothing in the Antiquities Act forbids the president from revoking or shrinking a national monument.”

The Antiquities Act doesn’t forbid driving a bulldozer through an ancient cave dwelling or mining for gold on Mt. Rushmore either. That doesn’t mean the Antiquities Act gives the president the authority to do those things. Nor would it even be a desirable policy outcome: presidents constantly redrawing national monuments would make management impossible and historical conservation an uphill battle.

As we might expect given this cavalier approach to policy, Zinke’s review process was flawed from the start. He declined to meet with pro-monument Native American leaders and then proclaimed them “very happy” with the prospect of shrinking Bears Ears, which prompted angry questions about who he was really listening to. After more than 1 million public comments were submitted on the overall review, Zinke wrote in his recommendations to Trump that “Comments received were overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments” – but dismissed it all, without citing evidence, as “a well orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations.”

In other words: “Don’t worry, Mr. President. It’s just a few activists trying to trick you. The public is with us.”

Treating our public lands this flippantly will have real-world consequences. As the Salt Lake Tribune recently reported, Utahns are concerned that despite President Obama’s designation of Bears Ears last year, the site under Trump has been given little effective public protection, which has led to the high levels of looting and motorized vehicle access that national monuments are designed to prevent.

Between Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation, the rise and fall of health care repeal and President Trump’s blustering foreign policy, you could be forgiven for not having followed this story closely. Trump’s chaotic, attention-grabbing style makes it all the more important that everyone become aware now before we’re distracted and the damage is done.