Trump to sign executive order putting two decades of national monuments in jeopardy

The president will order a review of monument designations despite strong public support for protected lands.

The “Moonhouse” in McLoyd Canyon, near Blanding, Utah. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File
The “Moonhouse” in McLoyd Canyon, near Blanding, Utah. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File

President Donald Trump is planning to sign an executive order on Wednesday ordering the U.S. Department of the Interior to review two decades’ worth of national monument designations, even though polling shows majorities of Americans agree with the designation of large amounts of public land as national monuments.

As part of the review, the Interior Department will look at whether to rescind, modify, or maintain a national monument designation, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said during a Tuesday evening press briefing. The department will speak with congressional delegations, governors, and other stakeholders as part of the review process, he told reporters.

Zinke, who said the review of the Antiquities Act’s national monument designation is “long overdue,” insisted there are no plans to transfer any federal lands to the states, or sell them to private entities. The review will focus on whether public lands should have a national monument status. The management of federal lands has “drifted too far away from multiple use to single use,” he contended.

On the campaign trail, Trump promised to open federal lands to oil and gas production. But the tone of administration officials and Republicans has changed since Trump took office. Republicans are now casting the push to reverse national monument designations as an attempt to give states more power, not as a bid to boost domestic energy production or mineral extraction.

In response to Trump’s campaign pledge to target federal lands, large numbers of Americans have urged their representatives to work against the president’s agenda and protect national parks and monuments.

“Since the election there has been an overwhelming public response in support of public lands. Public outrage forced [Rep.] Jason Chaffetz [R-UT] to withdraw his bill to sell off public lands across 10 states,” Chris Krupp, with the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, told ThinkProgress. “So I’m not surprised that the Trump administration doesn’t want any move to revoke or reduce the size of national monuments to be seen as a giveaway to the fossil fuels industry. But that’s what it is.”

Republican lawmakers in Western states have accused the Obama administration of moving forward with national monument designations, under the Antiquities Act, without consulting with state officials or their congressional delegations. Anti-national monument sentiment also exists among Republicans in the Northeast. Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) plans to testify before Congress next week against executive orders that create monuments without state approval.

Under Trump’s new executive order, the Interior Department will review national monument designations going back to January 1, 1996, which would precede President Bill Clinton’s decision to designate an area in southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The review will be restricted to national monuments of 100,000 acres or more, Zinke said.

The executive order will require the department to submit an interim report within 45 days of the executive order, which will likely include a recommendation on how to proceed with the Bears Ears National Monument, according to Zinke. The final report, which will look at between 24 and 40 monuments based on the criteria, will be due within 120 days of the executive order.

CREDIT: Grand Canyon Trust
CREDIT: Grand Canyon Trust

Jen Ujifusa, legislative director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, told ThinkProgress that the amount of oil and gas reserves in the Bears Ears National Monument area is minimal, and that only occasional uranium exploration takes place there.

“The idea that the designation of the monument in December somehow stifles all of this economic potential doesn’t add up,” she said. “This is an extremely ideological fight being waged by the Trump administration and the Utah delegation. The fact is these lands belong to all Americans. In the case of Utah, they never belonged to Utah.”

Earlier this month, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and a group of Western Democratic senators, wrote a letter to Trump urging him to preserve the protections for the nation’s 157 national monuments. More than 50 national monuments have been designated over the past 21 years.

“We urge you to reject calls to rescind protections for the Bears Ears National Monument in Southern Utah. This area contains thousands of archeological and Native American sacred sites currently threatened by looting and vandalism,” the senators wrote.

Vice President Al Gore joins President Bill Clinton in 1996 at the signing of a bill designating land in southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. CREDIT: AP Photo/Doug Mills
Vice President Al Gore joins President Bill Clinton in 1996 at the signing of a bill designating land in southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. CREDIT: AP Photo/Doug Mills

In December 2016, Obama granted a proposal by five Native American tribes to designate 1.35 million-acre of public lands in southeastern Utah, known as the Bears Ears area, as a national monument. The public can go into the area to view wildlife, camp, fish, hike, hunt, or ride ATVs, but companies are not allowed to extract oil and gas or other minerals from the area. On the same day, Obama designated as a national monument the Gold Butte area in southern Nevada.

Obama’s designation of Bears Ears in December and Clinton’s 1996 declaration of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, both in Utah, sparked fierce criticism from Republican lawmakers.

Strong majorities in seven Western states want to maintain designations of public land as national monuments, according to a recent poll conducted by Colorado College. In Utah, by a 15-point margin, voters are more inclined to say that Obama’s Bears Ears’ designation was a good thing, the poll results show.

Last September, Obama also designated the Atlantic Ocean’s first marine national monument when he created the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. The area consists of nearly 5,000 square miles of underwater canyons and mountains off the New England coast.

Through the action, Obama aimed to protect against “future extractive activities as the push to fish, drill, and mine in new places puts these habitats at risk,” Lee Crockett, director of U.S. oceans for the Pew Charitable Trusts, wrote in response to the designation. “And with climate change already affecting ocean conditions — recent research has found the nearby Gulf of Maine warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s marine waters — the monument will serve as an increasingly important refuge for the region’s sea life,” he explained.

Environmental group Greenpeace said it will fight to protect lands from losing their national monument status. “We will act in solidarity with people who live and worship on lands like Nevada’s Gold Butte and Utah’s Bears Ears and waters in the Arctic, Atlantic, and Gulf of Mexico,” the environmental group said in a statement.