Four national monuments in the American West could be shrunk and six others opened up to permit more mining, grazing, logging, and commercial fishing if President Trump follows the recommendations of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
The monuments recommended for downsizing include red rock canyons in Utah, forest and grassland in Oregon, and stunning rock formations in Nevada.
If enacted, the modifications would represent the most sweeping changes to existing national monuments by any sitting president — and are sure to set off a legal battle over presidential powers likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
Our team ventures to the far southwest corner of Utah to discover the hidden secrets and natural wonders of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Zinke’s advice is contained in a 19-page memorandum sent to the president late last month, after a review of 27 monuments at least 100,000 acres or more in size. Both the White House and Zinke had declined to make the memorandum public. The Washington Post published a leaked copy online Sunday night.
Monuments that would be shrunk include Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah, Gold Butte in Nevada, and Cascade-Siskiyou, straddling the Oregon-California border. The memorandum does not provide figures suggesting how much acreage in the four monuments should be eliminated.
Additionally, Zinke recommended management changes in six other monuments to permit commercial activities and other “traditional uses” that are now restricted. That would allow logging, or “active timber management,” in Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine, and road upgrades and Defense and Homeland Security activities in Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte in New Mexico. Three marine monuments—Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll in the Pacific, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts in the Atlantic—would be opened up to commercial fishing.
The White House declined to discuss the memorandum and told the Post that the Trump administration does not comment on leaked documents.
POWER TO CREATE
The 1906 Antiquities Act, signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, gives the president broad authority to create national monuments. The law survived an early court test challenging the president’s ability to determine monument size, after mining interests argued that the national monument Roosevelt created in 1907 to protect the Grand Canyon was too large. The Supreme Court found that Roosevelt had not overstepped.
Since then, presidents have downsized 18 monuments, most with minor adjustments. The exception is the 639,000-acre Mount Olympus National Monument, created by Roosevelt in 1909 and cut in half by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 to keep a supply of timber flowing to build Navy ships for World War I. None of these prior resizings were challenged in court, and that is the legal question to be answered if Trump acts.
“Gutting protections and changing boundaries for national monuments would be a sad chapter in our country’s history,” said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association. “The president does not have the legal authority to change national monument designations, and we’re prepared to take legal action to defend them.”
The legal battle over the Grand Canyon involved 818,560 acres—an immense size in 1907, but considerably smaller than the 1.35 million acres set aside for Bears Ears and the 1.8 million acres that became the Grand Staircase Escalante. Those two large monuments in southern Utah’s Red Rock country are so controversial they triggered Trump’s call for the review of monuments at least 100,000 acres in size created since 1996. Clinton established Grand Staircase in 1996, and Obama established Bears Ears in 2016.
Trump characterised the monuments created by Obama as an “egregious abuse of power.”
The Grand Staircase boundaries were altered and ratified by Congress, which raises questions about the president’s ability to redraw the monument’s boundaries.
“Because the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was essentially ratified by Congress when it approved a massive land exchange with the state of Utah, any presidential action to alter the boundaries of this monument raises additional legal issues about the President’s authority to override congressional action,” says Robert Keiter, director of the Wallace Stegner Centre for Land, Resources and the Environment at the University of Utah law school.
Regardless of the legal questions relating to presidential powers, Congress has the authority to create national monuments or make any changes, including abolishing them.
Zinke, who fashions himself as the modern-day protector of Roosevelt’s conservation legacy, said at the outset of his monument inspection tour that the Utah monuments, as well as other monuments created by Trump’s three immediate predecessors, were examples of presidential overreach.
Aside from their size, Zinke found other faults with the creation of the 10 monuments.
“It appears that certain monuments were designated to prevent economic activity such as grazing, mining, and timber production rather than to protect specific objects,” Zinke wrote in his memorandum. “In regard to grazing, while it is uncommon for proclamations to prohibit grazing outright, restrictions resulting from monument designation activities such as vegetative management can have the indirect result of hindering livestock-grazing uses.”
Never heard of Bears Ears? You may be missing one of the western U.S.'s most scenic places. A desert landscape of raw beauty and immeasurable cultural value in Utah, the area received designation as a national monument by President Obama. The status provided increased protection for the area’s wildlife, as well as for its historic Native American dwellings and petroglyphs.
Enric Sala, a National Geographic explorer in residence, said the recommendation to open the marine monuments to commercial fishing hampers the ability to restore fisheries—one of the reasons the marine monuments were set up. The Pacific monuments were set up by President George W. Bush and expanded by Obama. After Obama created the Atlantic monument, five commercial fishing groups sued in federal court. The suit is now on hold until Trump’s review is finalised.
“The Hawaii tuna fleet does not need to fish within the Pacific Remote Islands,” he says. “Before the expansion of the monument in 2014, less than five percent of the catch was taken within that area. Tuna grow and reproduce more when they have a refuge, thus helping to replenish fisheries around no-take areas. Last year the Hawaii fleet had their most profitable year. That shows the marine monuments work not only for marine life, but also help fishing. Opening them up to fishing is like spending away the principal of their investment account.”
In Utah, Obama established Bears Ears to protect one of the largest collections of tribal artefacts in the nation. Utah lawmakers also had considered a state plan, which at one point included more than one million acres. But after Bears Ears became a national monument, the Utah legislature passed a resolution earlier this year, signed by Gov. Gary Herbert, calling for the monument to be completely abolished.
Utah maps submitted by state officials to the Interior Department for Zinke’s review suggested that Bears Ears be reduced by 90 percent, to just 120,000 acres, the Salt Lake City Tribune reported.
Leaders of the five Native American tribes that joined together to push for the creation of Bears Ears were especially harsh in their criticism. The state proposal, Navajo Nation president Russell Begaye told the Tribune, “demonstrates their failure to listen to the concerns of our people who have lobbied and fought for over 80 years for this designation. Now that we finally have achieved that, we want to keep the designation as it is.”
Lead Image: This 296,940-acre landscape of dramatic red sandstone formations fills the gap between the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Virgin Mountains, and creates a continuous wildlife corridor for large animals, including bighorn sheep and mountain lions. The monument also provides habitat for numerous small animals, amphibians and reptiles, including the endangered Mojave desert tortoise and relict leopard frog, once considered extinct. PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT HARDING PICTURE LIBRARY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE