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After public outcry, the Interior Department won’t eliminate any national monuments

But Secretary Zinke still plans to make other "changes."

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at a podium in March 2017.
AP Photo

After a massive public outcry about a review of national monuments on federal lands that might have led to their elimination, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has decided not to seek the removal of any monument designation, according to a draft report he submitted to the White House on Thursday. But reports suggest that Zinke may still make significant changes to the monuments that could strip them of protections.

Some 2.4 million public comments, nearly all of them supporting the national monuments — which include the dazzling and historically important geological formations of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears in Utah — were submitted in the past 60 days. And they seemed to have had a big impact on the administration’s review.

Sights at the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
Getty Images

The victory for supporters of the monuments, however, is only partial. Zinke has still recommended shrinking some of the monuments as well as changing what activities are allowed on the federal lands. And Lisa Friedman of the New York Times reports that the monuments that could be shrunk include Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and two others.

Alex Taurel of the League of Conservation Voters released the following statement in response:

If these reports are true, it’s even clearer that Secretary Zinke’s assertion that he wouldn’t ‘eliminate’ any of our national monuments was just shallow spin. Any changes to monument boundaries threaten to open up our treasured public lands to drilling, mining and other special interests who want to pad their profits. It’s no coincidence that shrinking Bears Ears by nearly 90 percent could coincide with the 90 percent of the monument that has potential for oil, gas and coal speculators — further proof that the Trump administration’s sham review was a pretext for selling out our public lands and waters to the highest bidder.

The hullabaloo over the monuments began in April, when President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing Zinke to review 27 specific land and marine national monuments — all designated over the past two decades. Zinke was tasked with submitting to the White House a report of recommendations for what to do with them within 120 days.

At the April signing ceremony, Trump described the federal designation of large areas of land as national monuments (a power given to presidents by the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906) as a “massive federal land grab” and declared that “it’s time we ended this abusive practice.”

But environmental groups and other defenders of the monuments saw the Trump administration’s gestures at eliminating the monuments as an unwise concession to the oil and gas industry, which covets these lands for drilling and development.

“Zinke and the Trump administration want to gut the power of the Antiquities Act to shore up the fossil fuel industry,” May Boeve, executive director of the environmental organization, said in a statement in April. “On top of all the attacks on our climate, now we’ll have to defend our parks and monuments from Big Oil as well.”

But over the past two months, environmentalists, outdoors enthusiasts, and others have come out in force in defense of the national monuments under review, inundating the Interior Department with comments.

The report is not yet publicly available, though the DOI has published a summary of the draft on its website. In the summary, Zinke acknowledges that the vast majority of the 2.4 million responses received during the comment period “were overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments.” Early analyses in May and July by the Center for Western Priorities suggested as much too.

But the fight for the protection of these federal lands is far from over.

It was doubtful anyway whether it is in the executive’s authority to remove national monument designations bestowed by previous presidents. And in an interview with the Associated Press published Thursday, Zinke explained that his report will instead recommend certain changes — which could potentially include adjusting the borders to make monuments smaller and easing restrictions on what can be done on the lands — to a “handful” of monuments.

Environmental organizations remain concerned by Zinke’s vagueness. As Jacqueline Savitz of Oceana said to AP, “A change can be a small tweak or near annihilation.”

In a statement, Ben Schreiber of Friends of the Earth said that if Zinke attempts to shrink or allow mineral extraction on national monuments, “he can rest assured that his latest giveaway to corporate polluters will be litigated in the courts.”

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