Zinke seeks protections for public lands in his home state while attacking Utah monuments

Interior Secretary has a two-faced approach to public lands protection.

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana was kept off-limits from any reductions during Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's review of national monuments. CREDIT:  AP Photo/Matthew Brown
The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana was kept off-limits from any reductions during Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's review of national monuments. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Brown

President Donald Trump plans to visit Utah on Monday where he is expected to sign an executive order calling for major reductions in the size of the Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. The dramatically smaller sizes of the two Utah national monuments would be based on recommendations made by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

As part of his review of national monuments across the United States, the Interior secretary did not recommend a reduction in the size of any in his home state of Montana. In fact, Zinke, who represented Montana in Congress prior to taking over as Interior secretary earlier this year, recommended that Trump create a new 130,000-acre national monument in the Badger-Two Medicine area of northwestern Montana.

Both Bears Ears and Badger-Two Medicine are of cultural significance to Native American tribes. But only one is in Zinke’s home state.

“Everything that Secretary Zinke does in Montana is 180 degrees from what he does to the rest of the country,” Center for Western Priorities spokesperson Aaron Weiss told ThinkProgress. “Montana gets special treatment because he would like to be governor there some day.” The Center for Western Priorities is a nonprofit conservation and advocacy organization for communities in the Western United States.

The Department of the Interior did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment on Zinke’s decision to seek a new national monument in Montana.

Altogether, Zinke advised Trump to shrink the boundaries of at least four national monuments, none of them in Montana. Secrecy shrouded the Interior secretary’s review of the status of national monuments. The Interior Department has never made Zinke’s full report available to the public. The report, however, was leaked to the Washington Post in September. In the report, Zinke did not recommend a reduction in the size of the Upper Missouri River Breaks, the only national monument located in Montana on the list for review by the Interior secretary.

“Very early on in the review process, he said, ‘I’m not going to touch this one.’ Because if he was threatening that national monument for any period of time, that would doom his political future in Montana,” Weiss said of the Upper Missouri River Breaks.

In the most recent Conservation In the West poll from Colorado College, 77 percent of Montanans said that existing national monument designations for public lands protected over the last decade should be kept in place. Only 16 percent of Montanans said the designations should be removed.

Zinke has looked out for the interests of Montanans in other ways. He is seeking to block new gold mining claims on forested public lands in Montana near Yellowstone National Park and is considering blocking other types of mining in the area.

Elsewhere in the West, however, the Trump administration has pushed for lifting a 20-year ban on mining for uranium in the Grand Canyon watershed. Zinke also has applauded the construction of the Berwind Mine located on the border of West Virginia and Virginia, a project that will require the Interior Department to review and approve wildlife conservation plans.

Zinke’s recommendation on the Badger-Two Medicine national monument “caught a lot of people by surprise,” Land Tawney, executive director of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, told the Missoulian newspaper. “As you’re attacking the seminal accomplishments of [President Theodore] Roosevelt and at same time talking about adding a monument, it didn’t make much sense,” Tawney told the newspaper.

Native American tribes consider the Badger-Two Medicine area an important part of their traditional homeland. During the 1980s, Reagan Administration officials granted numerous oil and gas exploration leases in the area, without consulting the Blackfeet tribal government or doing proper environmental analysis. In 2016, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell formally canceled most of the oil and gas leases in the area. Two leaseholders still contend they have rights to drill in the area, and those cases are pending in court.

Despite the oil and gas potential in the area, Zinke is pushing to protect the area of Montana from drilling by designating it a national monument.

Native American tribes also view the Bears Ears National Monument, which Trump reportedly plans to shrink by 85 percent, as sacred land. But unlike in Montana, Zinke is siding with Utah Republicans who opposed President Barack Obama’s designation of the area as a national monument.

Native American tribes contend that the president doesn’t have the legal authority to shrink the size of a national monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Five tribes — the Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and the Ute Indian Tribe — make up the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition that advocated for years to get the government to designate the monument. The tribes plan to wage a legal fight against any attempt to reduce the size of Bears Ears.

Under the Antiquities Act, Congress delegated authority to the president to preserve and declare national monuments. The Antiquities Act does not give the president authority to modify or shrink national monuments. Congress reserved that authority for itself. “We know that tribes are going to file lawsuits as soon as the president signs the executive order on Monday,” Weiss said. “This will drag out in court for years and years because it’s a decision that will have to be settled by appeals courts, if not the Supreme Court.”

Bears Ears, which is now 1.35 million acres, could be reduced to about 200,000 acres after the change. Trump is expected to order the size of Grand Staircase, which is about 1.9 million acres, to be cut in half. The reductions would open parts of the monuments to oil and gas drilling and mining.

Trump is scheduled to announce the changes in Salt Lake City. The move will represent the biggest reductions by any president to designations made under the Antiquities Act.