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Interior Secretary Recommends Shrinking Six National Monuments

The review, which has been leaked, also suggests changes in uses and/or management of several other monuments

The Abajo Mountains in Bears Ears National Monument (Bears Ears Coalition/Tim Peterson)
smithsonian.com

Update, September 18, 2017: The Washington Post and the Associated Press have published copies of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's memorandum to President Donald Trump. In the report issued last month, which the White House has yet to release, Zinke recommends unspecified boundary changes to four national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah, Cascade Siskiyou in Oregon and Gold Butte in Nevada, as well as two marine national monuments, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and Rose Atoll Marine National Monument. Zinke also recommends changes in uses and/or management to the above monuments, in addition to New Mexico's Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande Del Norte, Maine's Katahdin Woods and Waters, New England's Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. Read the full scoop over at the Washington Post.

In April, President Trump issued an executive order instructing the Interior Department to review 27 National Monuments, units of the National Park Service designated and expanded by presidents through the 1906 Antiquities Act. The review was to determine if the decisions to protect the areas were made with “adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders.”

Now, the Associated Press reports, the unprecedented review headed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has concluded, with the department suggesting that changes be made to the boundaries of a “handful” of properties, though it does not recommend totally eliminating any of the monuments as some critics feared. The review now goes to the president, who has 120 days to decide whether or not to implement the recommendations. It is not known at this time whether those recommendations will be made public, reports Miranda Green at CNN.

According to a summary of the report, Zinke found that over the decades the scope and reasoning behind the designations has changed and that some proclamations were "arbitrary or politically motivated." During Zinke's 120-day review, he visited eight national monument sites in six states and spoke with hundreds of industry officials, Native American representatives, property-rights activists and other stakeholders. The agency also received 2.4 million public comments during the review, which showed overwhelming support for the continued preservation of the 200 monuments.

The review, Zinke says, is an attempt to give the public a voice in the designations, which require no public comment and no congressional approval. “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 says in a press release. “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.” 

Julie Turkewitz and Lisa Friedman at The New York Times report that majority of the 553-million acres put under review was set aside by President Barack Obama, though monuments designated by Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were also part of the study. Prior to submitting the report, six national monuments were removed from the review.

While supporters of the monuments are glad none of them are on the chopping block, the AP reports many are worried about what the extent of the boundary adjustments in the document might be, and demand a public release of the document. “A change can be a small tweak or near annihilation,” Jacqueline Savitz, senior vice president of Oceana, which is advocating for the five Marine National Monuments included in the study, tells the AP. “The public has a right to know.”

Zinke tells the AP that criticisms are unwarranted and that conservationists worried that the administration wants to sell off the land removed from the monuments to timber, grazing and mining interests are overreacting. “I’ve heard this narrative that somehow the land is going to be sold or transferred,” Zinke says. “That narrative is patently false and shameful. The land was public before and it will be public after." If land loses its designation, it will remain public, however, it will revert back to whatever agency was previously was responsible for it. That means stronger protections it was entitled to as a monument could bend to allow such things as hunting, oil development and mining.

While there are no details on what monuments might have recommended boundary changes and how big those changes might be, observers expect Utah’s Bears Ear National Monument, designated by President Obama last December, will see some boundary changes.

“The Bears Ears National Monument contains some objects that are appropriate for protection under the act,” Zinke wrote in a memo released in June. “However, having conducted the review ... I find that the Bears Ears National Monument does not fully conform with the policies set forth [in Trump's executive order].”

The Times report the 1.35 million-acre monument has been a flashpoint since its designation. While Navajo people in the region strongly support the protection of the area, which has historical and religious significance to their culture, opponents argue that it will prevent local economic development from uranium mining and oil and gas development.

According to sources with knowledge of the situation, Nick Sambides, Jr. at the Bangor Daily News reports that the one-year-old Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument appears to be safe from any “dramatic” changes. According to his sources, logging would not be allowed in the monument, though the Secretary would recommend that demonstrations of logging tools and practices be included to honor the region's heritage. That monument has also been a controversial flashpoint between logging interests, locals and environmentalists.

There is a strong precedent for presidents adjusting the boundaries of the monuments. The AP reports that in the last century, presidents have reduced or redrawn the boundaries of monuments 18 times. The Times reports the most dramatic change came in 1915, when Woodrow Wilson cut 312,280 acres from the monument that would later become Olympic National Park in Washington state, effectively cutting the size of monument originally designated by Theodore Roosevelt in half.  

What's not clear is whether presidents actually have the power to rescind a national monument designation, and may be one reason none were recommended for elimination. “No President has ever abolished or revoked a national monument proclamation, so the existence or scope of any such authority has not been tested in courts,” legislative attorney Alexandra M. Wyatt wrote in a paper about National Monuments released by Congressional Research Service in 2016. “However, some legal analyses since at least the 1930s have concluded that the Antiquities Act, by its terms, does not authorize the President to repeal proclamations, and that the President also lacks implied authority to do so.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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