In his latest assault on protections for federal lands, President Trump has just signed an executive order that calls for the review of all national monuments created in the past 20 years that are at least 100,000 acres in size.
The order authorizes Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to determine whether more than two dozen national monuments created since 1996 should remain federally protected or whether they should be stripped of their status and reopened for development.
In a White House press conference Tuesday evening, Zinke told reporters that such a review was “long overdue,” and that in recent years, national monuments had ballooned in size and were now jeopardizing jobs and economic growth, particularly in western states like Utah and California.
“By and large, the Antiquities Act and the monuments that we’ve protected have done a great service to the public,” Zinke told reporters, but went on to say, “Those out in the West would probably say it’s abused.”
One such example is the controversial Bears Ears Monument, which President Obama designated as a 1.35 million acre national monument in Utah during his last few days of office and President Trump is now seeking to dismantle. Also under attack in Utah is the 1.7 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante, which President Clinton created in 1996.
Zinke did not say which other national monuments the administration was specifically targeting, but did promise to decide on the status of Bears Ears in the next 45 days. As for the other national monuments under review, he said he will issue a final report in the next 120 days.
Why national monuments are under attack, and how Teddy Roosevelt’s obscure law to designate federal lands became a target
Wednesday’s executive order is really a political battle over a relatively obscure federal law known as the Antiquities Act, which President Theodore Roosevelt created in 1906 as a way for presidents to designate federal lands without congressional approval. (National parks, on the other hand, must be approved by Congress).
The law was passed so presidents could act quickly to protect some of America’s most pristine lands from development (namely, mining and drilling for oil and gas), but Republican lawmakers have criticized its use in recent years, arguing that the executive branch is overstepping its powers.
At the heart of the dispute is that national monument designations prohibit new development like drilling for oil and gas — and because national monuments have increased in size, this means less land is available for development. And in states like Utah where oil and natural gas are important to the economy, lawmakers are incensed.
House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) has long been critical of the law and has said he welcomes the executive order and will push legislation in the House to both rescind Bears Ears’ federally protected status and dismantle the Antiquities Act.
But what Bishop is proposing — overturning Bears Ears’ federally protected status — has no precedent. Congress currently possesses the power to eliminate national monuments but has done so only a handful of times and never for a monument on the scale of Bears Ears, which is more than 1 million acres and considered sacred to local Native American tribes.
Republicans like Bishop are arguing that the Antiquities Act could be used to completely do away with national monuments instead of just creating them. But no president has ever attempted this, which Secretary Zinke admitted during last night's White House press briefing. "It is untested ... whether the president can do that," he said of abolishing a national monument.
There are roughly 30 national monuments at risk of losing their federally protected status, and below is an interactive map of which monuments are currently being reviewed. The map was created by the environmental conservation advocacy organization Center for Western Priorities, and as you can see, nearly all of the targeted national monuments are located in western states, which have long struggled to strike a balance between development and federally protected lands. And we can now anticipate a renewed fight between America’s responsibility to protect federal lands and the administration’s staunchly pro-energy agenda.