Interior secretary Zinke’s secret national monuments report comes under legal attack

Next legal skirmish will likely challenge Trump's authority to shrink national monuments.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, shown here at the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, has yet to publicly release a report on national monuments. CREDIT: AP Photo/Patrick Whittle
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, shown here at the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, has yet to publicly release a report on national monuments. CREDIT: AP Photo/Patrick Whittle

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended that President Donald Trump approve the reduction of at least three national monuments, a move that could open hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands to oil and gas drilling and mining, according to leaked copies of a report prepared by the Department of the Interior.

In the recommendations, the Interior Department calls for shrinking the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon, according to the Washington Post. Zinke reportedly did not recommend eliminating any of the national monuments he reviewed.

The Interior Department has refused so far to release the full report to the public; it released only a summary. But the summary does not detail what changes, if any, Zinke has recommended for the national monuments that were under review, which cumulatively cover millions of acres of the United States.

The New York Times reported Thursday that Zinke had been considering reducing Bears Ears to 160,000 acres from its current 1.35 million acres. Utah’s congressional delegation has been pushing Trump to eliminate or shrink the size of Bears Ears from the moment he won the presidency. In May,  Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said Native Americans had been “manipulated” into their support for Bears Ears’ current size.

However, leaders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition are angered over reports that Zinke recommended to Trump that he make dramatic reductions to Bears Ears. “Secretary Zinke’s recommendation is an insult to tribes. He has shown complete disregard for sovereign tribes with ancestral connections to the region, as well as to the hundreds of thousands of people who have expressed support for Bears Ears National Monument,” Carleton Bowekaty, Zuni councilman and Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition co-chair, said in a statement Friday.

At Trump’s direction, the Interior Department initiated the review, based in part on the claim that the Obama administration failed to gather public input when deciding to name or expand national monuments. The Trump administration has refused to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by watchdog group Western Values Project for documents that would prove or disprove Trump’s claim. In May, the Western Values Project filed a lawsuit in federal court to force the release of documents from the Obama administration’s deliberations over Bears Ears and other monuments.

Zinke’s recommendations for the national monuments — if and when they are released to the public — are likely to face numerous legal challenges. The U.S. attorney general, in a 1938 opinion, found that the president does not have the power to reduce the size of or abolish a national monument. Supporters of eliminating or reducing the size of national monuments counter that no court has ever approved of the attorney general’s 1938 opinion.

The early 20th century law known as the Antiquities Act makes it possible for presidents to create national monuments. The law has survived various court challenges that have strengthened it. But the president’s authority to create a national monument of any size has not yet been challenged in court.

The recommendations in Zinke’s report are the conclusion of a 120-day review Trump initiated in April that targeted 27 land and marine national monuments.

“Zinke’s sham review was rigged from the beginning to open up more public lands to fossil fuel, mining and timber industries,” Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

In the summary, Zinke argued that Trump was correct in tasking him to review and provide recommendations of all national monuments that were designated from 1996 to the present that are 100,000 acres or greater in size or made without adequate public consultation. “There is no doubt that President Trump has the authority to review and consider recommendations to modify or add a monument,” Zinke wrote.

Some of the most outspoken opponents of protections for national monuments in the West, including the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada, are anti-government militia groups and extremists whose racist ideologies are well-documented.

In an interim report released in June, Zinke recommended that Trump significantly reduce the size of Bears Ears, an area of land that is considered sacred to Native Americans and is home to an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites. Though Zinke did not say in June how many acres would be cut from the monument, he did suggest 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 warrant protection under the Antiquities Act.

President Bill Clinton declared the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996, while President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears as a national monument in late 2016. The 113,000-acre Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon was established by Clinton and expanded by Obama in January.

“Secretary Zinke’s apparent decision to roll back protections for national monuments and his failure to disclose the details of that decision is monumentally out of touch with the will of the American people,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. “We have a right to know how he intends to change monument designations, and which of these special places are at risk.”

The Western Values Project filed an expedited Freedom of Information Act request with the Interior Department on Thursday seeking information on the monument review that was submitted to the White House. “If Secretary Zinke wants to redraw the maps for millions of acres of public land, he should at least be transparent and honest with the Western communities who will be impacted by his actions,” said Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project.

Saeger said it is a “farce for him to claim this review is about public input, while hiding the recommendations he’s made to President Trump on behalf of the American people.” Zinke is opening the door for “special interests to run the show on Western public lands” and “has sold out his Montana values and handed over the reins to lobbyists and Washington, D.C. insiders.” Zinke served as Montana’s only member of the U.S. House of Representatives prior to be named Interior secretary.

On Friday, the Sierra Club filed its own Freedom of Information Act request seeking details on recommendations from Zinke on the future of public lands protected as national monuments. The summary report released by Zinke “was void of any actual recommendations or decision-making metrics,” the environmental group said.

“The only real information conveyed in the report was Zinke’s willingness to sweep aside overwhelming support for preserving public land safeguards. We won’t be hustled. The truth is in the details, which is what we plan to find out with this request,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.