Trump Dumps National Monuments
President Donald Trump is visiting Utah next week, and not to take inspiration from the grandeur of our public lands, but rather to eviscerate protections for them. In the first official action stemming from his Executive Order last April demanding a “review” of 27 national monuments and Interior Secretary Zinke’s subsequent recommendations to alter ten of them, President Trump will announce that he is slashing Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by about 50 percent,Text of proclamations leaked to the Washington Post indicates that Bears Ears would be abolished and replaced by two comparatively tiny monuments and Grand Staircase-Escalante would be abolished and replaced by three small monuments.
Taken together, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante currently encompass 3.5 million acres of stunning rock formations, Native sacred sites and crucial wildlife habitat. Just as important, these two monuments anchor a system of protected lands across the region. Thus, for wildlife they provide for landscape-level connectivity, an important and increasingly rare ecological feature on western landscapes. Connectivity is one of the most critical factors in the conservation of fish and wildlife populations.
The five “new monuments” that President Trump will “establish,” only total about 35 percent of the original acreage of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. These areas will be disconnected, subjecting wildlife to increased edge effects and eliminating protections for wildlife corridors. It remains to be seen how the Trump administration intends to manage the smaller replacement monuments and the public lands in between for wildlife, watersheds, recreation, historic and cultural preservation and other public values.
About the Monuments
Bears Ears National Monument
Bears Ears National Monument represents an extraordinarily significant historic and cultural landscape in the United States. As described in the monument’s proclamation, the monument protects thousands of known and unknown archeological and historical sites that date back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Native American tribes not only advocated for establishment of the monument, but also share in the management and conservation of this designation.
Bears Ears also protects remote and intact ecosystems, watersheds, vegetation and community types, and habitat for fish and wildlife, including rare, endemic, sensitive and imperiled species. More than 15 species of bats can be found throughout the monument and topographic features such as rock depressions collect the scarce rainfall to provide habitat for numerous species. Bears Ears is also world-renowned for its elk population and is also home to mule deer and bighorn sheep. The area’s diversity of soils and rich microenvironments provide for a great diversity of vegetation that sustains dozens of species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a vital landscape for wildlife in Utah. Spanning an area the size of Delaware, the monument protects a variety of habitats, from deserts to coniferous forests. Grand Staircase-Escalante is home to bears, desert bighorn sheep and mountain lions, as well as over 200 species of birds including bald eagles and peregrine falcons.
Grand Staircase-Escalante had a metaphorical target painted on it by President Trump’s executive order, which directed Secretary Zinke to “review” large national monuments designated since 1996. Why that year? Because that was when President Clinton designated Grand Staircase-Escalante, the largest of our terrestrial monuments. It was also the first monument designated on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and thus represented a significant increase in protections on public lands that were previously vulnerable to all sorts of damaging activities. In particular, national monument protection closed the area to coal mining, sparking fury from those interests, and thus Utah’s congressional delegation.
A Monumental Mis-step
President Trump’s actions will not only eliminate monument protections but also open huge swaths of these lands to coal mining and oil and gas drilling. This is unprecedented in scale and scope. These actions are also very likely illegal under the laws that govern the designation and management of national monuments. The Antiquities Act of 1906, signed and first used by the great conservationist Teddy Roosevelt, authorizes the president to protect public lands and waters to preserve their historic, cultural and conservation values. The Act gives the president broad latitude to protect landmarks, archeological sites and “other objects of historic or scientific interest,”and has been used by nearly every president over the past century to protect public lands and waters for future generations. Many of America’s most beloved national parks — including Grand Canyon, Olympic, and Grand Tetons — were originally protected as national monuments.
One thing that the Antiquities Act does NOT do: give the president the authority to revoke a national monument. Only eleven national monuments have ever been abolished, and each of those times it was done by an Act of Congress. But what of shrinking a monument? The law is not on the president’s side here either. Although a few presidents have reduced the size of national monuments, no president has done so in decades, and not since Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). Section 204 of the act plainly states that it “specifically reserve[s] to the Congress the authority to modify and revoke withdrawals for national monuments created under the Antiquities Act.” Through FLPMA, Congress affirmed that the Antiquities Act does not give the president the ability to revoke or modify a national monument. Two Senators have already questioned the administration’s legal authority to make this move. What’s more, Utah Congressman Bob Bishop, an avowed enemy of national monuments, has introduced legislation that would give the president the ability to shrink monuments — an admission that the President does not presently have that authority under law.
So we will see President Trump in court.