Unless you have been living under a rock for the past six months you know that President Donald Trump has threatened to revoke or substantially gut the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, as well as several others ranging from Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine to Mojave Trails National Monument in California. (There is even some chance that after we go to press he will do so.) As with so many things that Trump trumpets he will do, we simply have no rational scale by which to measure such actions.
Zinke to Trump: Slash Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante
We now know that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has formally recommended that the president eviscerate Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. In reaching this predictable conclusion, Zinke’s recommendation relied on a host of extraneous factors that Trump directed him to consider (and that are not in the Antiquities Act). One such is whether the Bears Ears designation appropriately balanced protection of public resources within the monument against the designation’s alleged effect on non-federal lands outside the monument. What happens next is, tragically, up to Trump.
It bears noting that Americans across the land left little doubt about their view of the Trump-Zinke plot. They submitted more than 2 million written comments on the proposed changes to our national monuments. And according to several reviewers, the comments in support of our national monuments dwarfed opponents’ comments by a massive margin: more than 98 percent opposed changes to the monuments.
Zinke’s leaked report to the president on the future of several monuments conceded that the public comments were “overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments” but in the next breath dismissed this overwhelming support as merely “a well-orchestrated national campaign.” Zinke’s back-of-the-hand rejection of Americans who love public lands and national monuments and who took the time to say so isn’t all that surprising. It comports with our ever-dwindling expectations of this Interior Secretary.
Speaking of the leaked report, it was, in a word, underwhelming. The report devoted less than two pages, total, to its discussion of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante and contained only the most generalized statements about the remarkable nature of the objects those monuments aim to protect and the less-than-colorable complaints by monument opponents. Given this, perhaps it’s no surprise that Zinke submitted the report under cover of darkness and has refused to release it to the public.
Responding to the Unthinkable
In the 111-year history of the Antiquities Act there have been roughly two dozen instances in which a president has diminished a national monument. In all but one of those cases (President Wilson’s reducing the acreage of Olympus National Monument in the midst of World War I) the acreage at issue was relatively small, hundreds to thousands of acres, and noncontroversial. None of those actions to shrink a national monument were challenged in federal court and thus tell us nothing about whether such actions were lawful.
The most recent presidential action to adjust a monument’s size was more than 50 years ago, in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy added some acres and took away others in Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. That executive order, and all the ones before it which tinkered with monument boundaries, was issued prior to 1976, the year in which the Federal Land Policy and Management Act became law. In debating FLPMA, Congress was clear that it intended to leave intact a grant of power to the president to create—but not to gut or rescind—a national monument. No president has acted since.
Unparalleled Executive Overreach
Whether he revokes them outright or merely eviscerates Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, Trump will (once again) take the country into uncharted waters. We will respond as others have responded: by beating a path to the federal courthouse doors to check Trump’s outlandish executive overreach.
And we won’t be alone. Native American tribes have been clear that they will not sit idly by and watch Trump attack Bears Ears, the first national monument designated at the specific request of tribes. Other monument proponents and supporters have voiced similar outrage over Trump’s plans and a willingness to take him on in court. We’ll be in excellent company when we respond to this never-before-seen assault on our federal public lands.
We are confident that Trump lacks the authority to eviscerate the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. We didn’t go looking for this fight, but we’re going to do everything in our power to win it.
(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, autumn/winter 2017 issue)