Why Trump’s monument review is doomed to fail

President Trump ignores lessons from the Bush administration to leave national monuments alone

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which has been called into question by both the Bush and Trump administrations | © Tim Peterson

When President Trump issued an executive order threatening dozens of America’s national monuments, he reopened a door firmly closed during the George W. Bush administration. A similar review of monuments launched in 2001 was halted after the national monuments in question proved to be exceptionally popular.

Instead of listening to lessons already learned, President Trump has again called into question America’s overwhelmingly popular conservation legacy.

In January 2001, President George W. Bush nominated Gale Norton to be Secretary of the Interior. During her confirmation hearing, Norton pledged to review national monuments designated by President Bill Clinton.

Like President Trump, Norton criticized the national monument designation process, calling it a “top down” approach.

But by April the following year, Norton and the Interior Department had changed their tune. Instead of altering or eliminating recent national monuments, the agency began drafting land management plans, using the planning process to make sure that local voices had a say in how the monuments were managed.

An article in The Washington Post stated that the change in strategy was due to the fact that “the monuments…proved to be far more popular than Bush officials anticipated.”

And now, President Trump has made the mistake of reopening a door that the Bush administration decisively closed after broad support for national monuments illuminated the political pitfall of messing with America’s conservation legacy.

On April 26th, President Trump launched a systematic “review” of national monuments for potential elimination or diminishment, saying, “Today, we are putting the states back in charge. It’s a big thing.”

But it turns out that Western elected officials like their national monuments as is. Since the executive order was issued, everyone from United States senators to county commissioners have risen up in defense of their national monuments, decrying the president’s actions as “a waste of federal resources” and “a gift to special interest groups.”

In Colorado, state congressional delegates, led by Representative Barbara McLachlan (D-Durango), unanimously passed a resolution requesting that no Colorado monuments are “revoked nor diminished” and affirming that the Antiquities Act (the 1906 law that allows presidents to protect national public lands as monuments) is an “an important tool” that “should be maintained.”

In Washington and New Mexico, Attorneys General Bob Ferguson and Hector Balderas, respectively, have both submitted letters to the president expressing their grave concerns with the executive order. Ferguson even pledged to take the Trump administration to court if the outcome of the review threatens Washington’s national monuments, saying, “I ask President Trump and Secretary Zinke to respect the legal limits of their powers. If President Trump attempts to harm Washington’s National Monuments, my office will defend them.”

In Taos County — home to New Mexico’s Río Grande del Norte National Monument — county commissioners penned an op-ed summarizing the threats the president’s review could pose to Westerners everywhere. “The thought of our community losing something as cherished and valuable as the Río Grande del Norte National Monument is chilling,” writes Commissioners Mark Gallegos and Tom Blankenhorn, “Our businesses would lose their bread and butter. Our water supply could be threatened or compromised. And our rich and vibrant history and culture could be lost should the area be developed.”

If the broad support for national monuments wasn’t already clear, a bipartisan group of 325 state legislators from 44 states recently sent a letter to President Trump urging him “not to rescind, reduce the size of, or otherwise amend” America’s monuments. Instead of weakening protections, they ask that the president work with Congress to increase funding for the nation’s protected public lands, “to conserve the natural resources of these areas while providing even greater economic benefits to neighboring communities.”

What was apparent to the Interior Department under President George W. Bush is still true today; our national monuments are overwhelmingly popular and should be maintained, and strengthened, for future Americans to enjoy.