Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recommended that President Donald Trump cut the boundary of the culturally significant Bears Ears National Monument in an interim report he sent to Trump over the weekend.
Tribes and conservation groups argue that this is a potentially illegal act and that Trump does not have the authority to eliminate sections of a national monument.
“The review shows that rather than designating an area encompassing almost 1.5 million acres as a national monument, it would have been more appropriate to identify and separate the areas that have significant objects to be protected” the secretary’s report reads.
Though Zinke did not say how many acres would be cut from the monument, he did suggest that there are “a lot more” landscapes that do not need to be protected as a national monument than there are historical artifacts and sacred sites that are warrant protection under the Antiquities Act.
The report and review of Bears Ears National Monument are the result of an Executive Order signed by Trump in April aimed at revoking or shrinking 27 national monuments. Bears Ears is a 1.35 million-acre monument that was designated late last year by President Obama at the behest of a coalition of five tribal nations with the intention to protect sacred Native American sites and ecologically significant landscapes.
“For Navajo nation this is really about the preservation of our way of life as Navajo people,” said Ethel Branch, Attorney General for the Navajo Nation and Navajo tribal member. “Protection of these lands is non negotiable. Our people and our leaders have spent endless hours working to protect these lands through monument designation.”
Further, Zinke’s request that Trump eliminate key areas of the monument may also go outside of the president’s legal authority granted under the Antiquities Act. While a handful of monuments established established before 1940 have been modified, none of these past boundary adjustments have been challenged — or upheld — in court. Additionally, none of these changes have taken place since the passing of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which affirmed that only Congress has the authority to modify federal lands.
“The Trump administration does not have the legal authority to alter or rescind national monuments,” Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement. “Any move to do so is nothing short of a betrayal to the American people and the land and history we’ve spent generations safeguarding. We cannot and will not stand idly by and let it happen. Bears Ears was deserving of national monument designation, just as the Grand Canyon, Statue of Liberty and Muir Woods were, and remains so today.”
Zinke’s report also included several recommendations directed at Congress, including enabling tribal co-management of the monument. On a Monday press call, Zinke indicated that he had talked to tribes and they were “very happy” with his proposal.
However, Natalie Landreth, a senior staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund said called Zinke’s congressional co-management recommendation “a cynical effort to distract Indian Country from the devastating blow of reducing the size of the monument,” especially given that the monument’s proclamation already set up a tribal coalition to help manage the monument.
Zinke also asked Congress to create alternate designations such as national conservation or recreation areas within what is currently Bears Ears National Monument, and to clarify wilderness management practices within national monuments.
But Congress has not proven their ability to pass legislation to protect Bears Ears. The Public Lands Initiative, a bill sponsored by Utah Reps. Rob Bishop (R) and Jason Chaffetz (R) meant to protect Bears Ears legislatively, was a years-long effort that didn’t even make it out of the House. This could mean that any alternate protections for the areas cut out of the Bears Ears monument, as described by Zinke, is far from certain.
“The secretary’s report is nonsense,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) said in a statement. “The memo released today doesn’t give any accounting of the public comments the Interior Department received as part of this review process. It doesn’t reference any maps or specify legislative language. If you stack this memo up against the years of administrative work that went into designating Bears Ears, including extensive, detailed consultations with Utah’s elected representatives, it’s not worth the three pieces of paper it’s printed on.”
According to an analysis of the recent public comment period, Utah residents support the monument by a 9 to 1 margin. The initial comment period was open for just 15 days, but on Monday the Interior Department re-opened and extended the deadline until July 10. It is unclear how additional comments will be used, given that the secretary has already presented his recommendations.
A final report with recommendations for all 27 monuments, including Bears Ears, identified in the Executive Order is due to Trump on August 24.
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.