Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended Thursday that President Trump alter at least three national monuments established by his immediate predecessors, including two in Utah, a move expected to reshape federal land and water protections and certain to trigger major legal fights.
In a report Zinke submitted to the White House, the secretary recommended reducing the size of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, as well as Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, according to multiple individuals briefed on the decision. President Bill Clinton declared the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996, while President Barack Obama designated the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears last year. Cascade-Siskiyou, which now encompasses more than 113,000 acres, was established by Clinton shortly before leaving office and expanded by Obama in January.
Trump had ordered Zinke to examine more than two dozen sites established by Clinton, Obama and George W. Bush under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The nearly four-month process pitted those who have felt marginalized by federal actions over the past 20 years against backers who see the sites as bolstering tourism and recreation while safeguarding important relics, environments and species.
The Interior Department did not give specifics on Zinke’s recommendations, instead releasing a report summary that described each of the 27 protected areas scrutinized as “unique.”
Yet his proposal takes direct aim at a handful of the nation’s most controversial protected areas out west, according to several individuals who asked for anonymity because the report has yet to be made public. Zinke, who had called for revising Bears Ears’ boundaries in an interim report in June, is recommending a “significant” reduction in its size, an administration official said.
The report also calls for changing the management rules for several sites, such as allowing fishing in marine monuments where it is currently prohibited, and would affect the boundaries of other monuments beyond the three officials identified Thursday.
“No President should use the authority under the Antiquities Act to restrict public access, prevent hunting and fishing, burden private land, or eliminate traditional land uses, unless such action is needed to protect the object,” Zinke said in a statement. “The recommendations I sent to the president on national monuments will maintain federal ownership of all federal land and protect the land under federal environmental regulations, and also provide a much needed change for the local communities who border and rely on these lands for hunting and fishing, economic development, traditional uses, and recreation.”
A White House official confirmed that Trump had received the report but would not say when it would be released or when the president would act on Zinke’s recommendations.
“Comments received were overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments and demonstrated a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations,” Zinke said in the statement. He acknowledged supporters’ point that monuments can bring economic benefits to local communities.
But he also noted opponents’ concerns that designations had translated into reduced public access, confusing management plans “and pressure applied private land owners … to sell.”
Zinke did not recommend abolishing any monument. Still, some of the key constituencies most critical of sweeping restrictions for federal lands and waters — ranchers, fishing operators and local Republican politicians — won key concessions in his final set of recommendations.
“Quite frankly, previous administrations got a little too greedy,” said Ethan Lane, executive director of the public lands council at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Environmental groups have made clear that they would file legal challenges in an effort to preserve these sites’ existing boundaries and protections. While Congress can alter national monuments easily through legislation, presidents have reduced their boundaries only on rare occasions.
Woodrow Wilson nearly halved the acreage of Mount Olympus National Monument, which Theodore Roosevelt had established six years earlier. In 1938, the U.S. attorney general wrote a formal opinion saying the Antiquities Act authorized presidents to establish a monument but did not grant them the right to abolish one, and several legal scholars argue that Congress indicated in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 that it reserved the right to alter any existing monument.
Robert D. Rosenbaum, who serves as counsel to the National Parks Conservation Association, said Wednesday that no president has sought to shrink a monument’s boundaries in the past four decades: “If the president attempts unilaterally to take adverse action on any of the monuments under review, he would be on very shaky legal ground, and we expect the action would be challenged in federal court.”
Tribal officials have lobbied hard to preserve Bears Ears, which boasts extensive ancestral Pueblo artifacts and rock art. Seven tribes in Utah and the Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes of Montana, which counts Zinke as an adopted member, passed resolutions this month calling for the monument’s boundaries to remain in place.
But many western Republicans criticized such large protected areas as a distortion of the law’s original intent. In a call with reporters on Thursday, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said that “Congress never intended one individual to unilaterally dictate land management policies for enormous swaths of federal land.”
“It’s about how we protect our resources, not if we protect them,” said Bishop, noting that Obama had applied his authority under the Antiquities Act to more than 550 million acres of land and sea. “That’s 190,000 acres of land and water locked up for every day he was in office.”
Utah has become a flash point for tensions over the relatively-obscure 111-year old law. Kane County Commission Chairman Dirk Clayson, whose county includes Grand Staircase-Escalanta, said in an interview Tuesday that much of it “has been designated as primitive, and you can’t promote visitation, create trail heads or restrooms for a safe, comfortable visitor experience … Extreme conservation groups want to protect and tie up the land.”
Yet Nicole Croft, executive director of Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, refutes such claims — in part by citing language in the monument’s proclamation that specifically maintains existing permits for livestock grazing, for example. She said commissioners “refused to even sit down at the table” with the monument’s supporters or to acknowledge how it has helped to power the local economy.
And Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, issued a scathing critique of the process the administration was using to scale back the designations.
“Teddy Roosevelt would roll over in his grave if he could see what Donald Trump and Ryan Zinke are trying to do to our national treasures today,” she said. “Secretary Zinke’s secret report to the president is the latest step in a rigged process to try and turn over our public lands to oil and gas companies.”
Obama creates the largest protected place on the planet, in Hawaii