LAS VEGAS SUN- Using his executive authority, President Donald Trump directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke Wednesday to review national monument designations dating back to the Clinton administration.
Since the early 1900s, presidents have used a law called the Antiquities Act to create national monuments. But the act is controversial, especially in the West, where the federal government owns vast parcels of land. Debate over the Antiquities Act came back into the spotlight late last year, when President Barack Obama declared two monuments — Gold Butte in Nevada and Bears Ears in Utah — just weeks before his term ended. The order Trump signed on Wednesday asks for a review of the Antiquities Act, which was used to create 24 national monuments under three different presidents since 1996.
Conservationists argue that the Antiquities Act is one of the most important tools in protecting historic public lands. A national monument designation often is the precursor to the creation of a national park, they say, pointing to the Grand Canyon and Olympic National Park.
Opponents of the Antiquities Act argue that it gives the president too much power to circumvent local, often rural, representatives, with Congress then deciding how large swaths of land should be managed.
At a signing ceremony, Trump said the Obama administration used the act for a “massive federal land grab” and predicted that a review would “end these abuses and return control to the people.” Trump’s executive order said that national monument designations can create barriers to energy exploration, obstruct public access, burden local governments and “curtail economic growth.”
Got it. What’s next?
Under the executive order, Zinke has 45 days to compile an interim report. That document must include a summary of findings on the Bears Ears National Monument, which Trump said “should never have happened.” Zinke will offer a recommendation for further action.
Why Bears Ears?
In Utah, the Bears Ears National Monument, spanning 1.35 million acres, remains a politically charged issue. The area includes sacred tribal land and archeological sites that even passionate opponents of the designation, like Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, argue are worthy of protection. But policymakers have argued for decades over how much land should be protected. Even though the Obama administration consulted with Utah politicians before its move, the designation sparked partisan outrage from the state’s delegation, who said it was federal overreach. Rep. Jason Chaffetz called it “a slap in the face to the people of Utah.” In Utah, Obama’s move only amplified the frustration of many legislators, who are still upset about the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that Clinton created in 1996. Utah Republicans including Hatch pressured Trump to review the monuments, and he delivered with Wednesday’s action.
Where does that leave Nevada?
The administration will review two national monuments: the Gold Butte National Monument in Southern Nevada and the Basin and Range National Monument near the state’s eastern border. It could impact nearby recreational destinations, including the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument on the Arizona-Nevada border and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Southern Utah.
What can Trump actually do?
The order looks to downsize or eliminate the monuments under review, but Trump could be wading into uncharted legal territory in a move that would almost certainly result in a lawsuit. “There is not a clear settled legal answer” as to whether a president can get rid of a national monument, said Bret Birdsong, a UNLV law professor and Interior Department attorney for the Obama administration.
There is some precedent for reducing the size of a national monument designation. President Woodrow Wilson reduced the size of the Mt. Olympus National Monument (now included in Olympic National Park). There is no precedent for an executive action eliminating a monument. President Franklin Roosevelt considered it but backed off after the attorney general said the act did not give the Executive Branch explicit authority to abolish monuments. Congress acted instead.
Are conservationists concerned?
Yes and no. Nevada environmental leaders criticized Trump’s decision but said that restricting the size of national monuments could be bad politics. Friends of Gold Butte cited a Colorado College poll showing 80 percent of Western voters favor keeping national monuments untouched. Advocates have launched vigorous campaigns in the past against lawmakers who support the sale or rollback of protections for public land. And the outdoor and hunting industries, both supporters of its preservation, have been unafraid to flex their economic muscle. The most prominent example came when the Outdoor Industry Association announced it would no longer host its annual retail show in Utah, after the state’s governor signed a resolution that urged Congress to dismantle the Bears Ears monument.
What does this mean for the public lands debate?
The Nevada Lands Council, which supports transferring federal land back to the states, applauded Trump’s move. “We’re absolutely in favor of the review,” said council president Rex Steninger. He added that Demar Dahl, the council’s chairman and an Elko County commissioner, attended the signing of a different executive order but met with Trump administration staff Wednesday to discuss public lands. Steninger said he hopes to see more action on transferring public land to the state. But there are political obstacles. Most Nevadans tend to support public lands, and coalitions of hunters and conservationists have been effective in blocking proposals to transfer them. In addition, both Trump and Zinke have said in the past that they are against federal land transfers.