President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order Wednesday that moves to undermine one of the nation’s most important tools for protecting national parks and public lands.
The order will direct the Department of the Interior, which oversee much of the United States’ public lands, to review previous monument designations and “suggest legislative changes or modifications,” a White House official told E&E News.
This move could open to the door to revoking designations for millions of acres of land and waters that have been protected under the Antiquities Act.
Every indication is that the administration’s “review” will conclude that there is too much protected public land in the country. The Republican Party platform called for turning over public lands to states, and, as a candidate, Donald Trump repeatedly said we need to drill and dig more fossil fuels from U.S. lands.
But many people don’t even know what the Antiquities Act does. Here’s what you need to know:
The Antiquities Act brought us the Grand Canyon, Acadia, and the Grand Tetons National Parks
The Antiquities Act of 1906 allows presidents to protect areas of significant natural and cultural heritage as national monuments. It’s been used by nearly every president since its passage and nearly half of the country’s national parks were originally protected as national monuments.
“It appears this executive order is the start of an all-out assault on America’s national monuments and Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation legacy,” Aaron Weiss, Media Director at the Center for Western Priorities, said in an email to ThinkProgress. “Presidents from both parties have used Antiquities Act to protect America’s history and heritage for more than a hundred years — the more dysfunctional Congress is, the more important the Antiquities Act becomes.”
The Antiquities Act protects symbols of our diverse history, including the only monument to LGBT rights
National monuments are often the product of grassroots efforts to protect local sites. LGBT groups, tribes, and civil rights leaders have all worked to show the need to protect local places like Stonewall Inn, Gold Butte, Cesar Chavez, and the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monuments.
Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.35-million acre area protecting sacred Native American sites and ecologically significant landscapes, is thought to be particularly at risk from the Trump order because of attacks from Utah politicians. This is despite the years of communication between the Obama administration and Utah stakeholders and elected officials prior to its protection and the unprecedented coalition of 30 Native American Tribes in support of protecting the area.
This place deserves to be protected and the only practical way to protect it is the Antiquities Act
“I would look forward to a serious review of Bears Ears by the secretary and by the Interior [Department],” Josh Ewing, executive director of the Friends of Cedar Mesa, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “I think the conclusion they would come to, if they really look at the international significance of this place, is they would come to the same conclusion that [former Interior] Secretary [Sally] Jewell did after spending five days on the ground and a huge public meeting — which is that this place deserves to be protected and the only practical way to protect it is the Antiquities Act.”
The public overwhelmingly opposes attacks on parks and public lands
National parks and national monuments are incredibly popular. Visitation to national parks is at an all-time high, with 331 million visits last year alone. The 2017 Conservation in the West poll conducted by Colorado College found only 13 percent of Western voters supported removing protections for existing monuments while 80 percent supported keeping them in place.
Eliminating or shrinking national monuments will hurt local economies
National parks and public lands are a critical part of the nation’s economy — especially for rural and Western communities. A study by Headwaters Economics found that regions surrounding national monuments have seen continued growth or improvement in employment, personal income and increased per-capita income, and rural counties in the West with more than 30 percent protected public lands saw jobs increase by 345 percent over areas without protected lands.
Early reports have said the order will cover any monument designated in the past 21 years. A move of this nature would leave more than 50 national monuments vulnerable to elimination, boundary changes, or a giveaway to development interests. An executive order of this breadth could put an unprecedented number popular monuments and the communities they support at risk.
No president has ever attempted to eliminate an existing national monument and boundary changes have never been challenged in court. However legal scholars argue that the president does not have the legal authority to get rid of or significantly alter a monument, so Trump’s actions could expose the administration to lawsuits.
Jenny Rowland is the research and advocacy manager for the public lands team at the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress Action Fund.