The public has not seen Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s draft recommendations to President Donald Trump about changing the size and use of several national monuments. Since the topic is public lands, that’s disturbing.
Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah probably face significant reductions, as does Cascade-Siskiyou in California and Oregon. Other monuments likely will see smaller changes in boundaries or management rules, but especially for those three, the political components of the move seem apparent: large size, cultural or natural values, local and industry opposition and designation by presidents Barack Obama or Bill Clinton.
The body of public engagement and data-driven scientific input that preceded previous decisions is not being seriously considered. That’s especially unfortunate with respect to the tribal coalition that advocated so strongly and persuasively for preservation of ancestral lands in Bears Ears.
The Antiquities Act, under which monuments are designated, was designed to protect archaeological and cultural resources, especially in the face of intentional destruction, yet Native Americans have only recently gained a seat at the table. They deserve better treatment than they are likely to get under this process.
The perception of losing something valuable through these designations – whether traditional uses or future development – cannot be disregarded, and it is not limited to those who oppose the monuments. All those whose land-management hopes are not honored feel a similar sense of loss.
Some residents of neighboring communities, accustomed to having federal lands largely under their use and control, have characterized the monuments as “land grabs,” although the lands in question are all public. That unrest is not unusual; it just speaks more loudly to this president. That even some of those communities have been excluded from discussions about potential changes should be cause for concern. Zinke certainly has not reached out to the full range of interested parties.
Concerns about use restrictions that might hamper local economies are valid topics for logical discussion: What activities really will be prohibited or shrink significantly because of a monument’s designation? What new ones will be gained? Worst fears have not been realized for older monument designations, including Canyons of the Ancients, another archaeological monument where traditional uses, including energy development and cattle grazing, have continued.
Federal lands are not locally owned but widely held. Management decisions must balance many considerations, but a president has no magical power to rewind history and restore an area to prosperity. No matter what Trump and Zinke do, economies, including those related to oil and gas, are buffeted by many forces unrelated to neighboring monuments.
No one is served well by abrupt pendulum swings. Congress has the authority to alter monument boundaries, but whether Trump legally can – a move unprecedented among recent administrations – seems destined to be decided by a court ruling about constitutionality rather than a public discussion about advisability. That’s hardly optimal.
Until more details are released, the primary value that must be upheld is the public’s best interest – transparency that enables effective public participation in decisions about public access to and use of public lands.