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.
A tribal coalition that pushed for the Bears Ears National Monument on sacred tribal land in Utah is prepared to launch a legal fight against even a slight reduction in size, said Gavin Noyes of the nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah.
More specifics are needed on Zinke’s recommendations to reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument, Noyes said.
“We really did not see anything new today,” Noyes said. “If the process was transparent, then the public should know the exact recommendations that were delivered to the White House.”
The Bears Ears National Monument is the first of its kind that will be co-managed by a Native American commission represented by five regional tribes with ancestral ties to the land, including the Hopi, Ute Mountain, Northern Utes, Navajo and Zuni.
Regina Whiteskunk, a former Ute Mountain Ute council member who lobbied for the monument, said Thursday that the tribe supports keeping the monument as it is.
“I’ve recently met with tribal leadership, and they are steadfast about keeping the boundaries and maintaining the protections of the monument,” she said.
The designation of Bears Ears to protect Native American cultural sites is seen by tribes as healing their often troubled relationship with the federal government, Whiteskunk said.
“To try and reduce or undo the monument is not in good faith, and would be taking 10 steps back,” she said. “The five tribes came together and worked hard to get protections for the land. It is disheartening to see efforts to try and take away that achievement.”
Conservation groups have promised legal challenges if the Trump administration attempts to shrink Bears Ears. Noyes noted there have been monuments that have been slightly reduced in size based on boundary errors or other practical reasons. However, none of the changes were ever challenged in court.
“This is new territory. Nothing in the Antiquities Act gives the president the authority to reduce the size of a monument made by a predecessor,” Noyes said.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Zinke said he is recommending changes to a “handful” of sites, including unspecified boundary adjustments, and suggested some monuments are too large. The White House said only that it received Zinke’s recommendations and is reviewing them.
Conservationists and tribal leaders responded with alarm and distrust, demanding the full release of Zinke’s recommendations and vowing to challenge attempts to shrink any monuments.
“President Trump and Secretary Zinke have done the unthinkable and attacked our national parks and monuments despite tremendous public support for them,” said Scott Braden, Wilderness and Public Lands Advocate at Conservation Colorado. “The fact that Colorado’s national monuments were spared from tampering is a Pyrrhic victory; it is a sad day for every Coloradan who values and cherishes our nation’s proud legacy of protecting national parks and public lands.”
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.
“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 a 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 landowners ... 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 – apparently won key concessions in his final set of recommendations.
The report also calls for changing the management rules for these sites, such as allowing fishing in marine monuments where it is currently prohibited.
Environmental groups 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, have all 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.”
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.”
Cortez Journal Staff Writer Jim Mimiaga contributed to this report.