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Interior Asks to Shrink National Monuments—Here's What That Means

The Secretary of the Interior says he is asking the president to reduce the boundaries of a handful of recently created monuments, but that's likely to set up a pitched legal battle.

Bears Ears National Monument in Utah has been at the forefront of a debate over public lands, heating up this week.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says he will recommend to President Trump that none of 27 national monuments under review be abolished. But he will propose downsizing a “handful” of monuments, including Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah, which he announced earlier in the summer.

The changes to that handful will trigger a legal challenge and political fight in Congress. Conservationists, who feared the sweeping nature of Trump’s review would lead to substantial reductions in the size of large monuments in the West, say they will challenge those boundary readjustments in court. Meanwhile, Republicans in the House of Representatives who had urged Trump to take stronger action and revoke multiple monuments outright say they will now promote legislation to limit presidential powers in creating monuments.

“Congress never intended for one individual to be given the power to unilaterally dictate land management policies for large swaths of land,” Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a briefing after Zinke’s recommendations were announced. “Bears Ears is double the size of the state of Rhode Island. Grand Staircase is three times the size of Rhode Island.”

Zinke, who told the Associated Press in Billings, Montana, about the recommendations, did not detail which monuments he has proposed to reconfigure. The Washington Post reported that Grand Staircase-Escalante, also in southern Utah, and Cascade-Siskiyou in southern Oregon are targeted for shrinking. The two Utah monuments, which comprise a total of 3.05 million acres combined, are largely believed to have triggered the monument review. The Utah congressional delegation asked Trump to abolish both. Bears Ears was created by President Obama last year; Grand Staircase was created by President Clinton in 1996.

In the run-up to Zinke’s recommendation, he had announced earlier that six monuments will remain intact:

Hanford Reach in Washington state, Upper Missouri Breaks in Montana, Craters of the Moon in Idaho, Sand to Snow in Southern California, Grand Canyon-Parashant in Arizona, and Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado.

Trump’s decision to examine so many monuments also fueled the long-running dispute over public lands that has flared in recent years with armed standoffs in Nevada between rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management over unpaid grazing fees, and in Oregon, where anti-government protesters occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for 41 days in 2016. (Learn more about these controversies.)

The monument review prompted public protests in some of the states that contain the monuments under review, and drew more than 2.8 million comments during the public comment period—one of the largest public responses to Interior Department action in the agency’s history. The majority of the comments, Zinke said, favored maintaining existing monuments.

“The Trump monument review has become a fundamental fight about the value of our public lands and we are reopening a question that was settled a long time ago,” says Sharon Buccino, director of land and wildlife programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an organization of lawyers and scientists who promote environmental issues. “It is part of our identity as Americans to protect some of our lands. That is what is at the root of this fight.”

What the Antiquities Act Allows

Presidential authority to create national monuments flows from the Antiquities Act, signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. No president has ever revoked an established national monument. Until Trump, none ordered such a broad review of existing monuments.

Roosevelt created 18 national monuments and his legacy as the nation’s conservation president is often channeled by Zinke, a former Navy SEAL who served as Montana’s at-large congressman before Trump named him to head Interior. Zinke mentions Roosevelt three times in his Interior Department biography, where he also vows to “faithfully uphold Teddy Roosevelt’s belief that our treasured public lands are ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.’”

Zinke declined to release the full report of his recommendations. In a two-page summary, he said that “no president should … restrict public access, prevent hunting and fishing, burden private land, or eliminate traditional land uses…” except to protect the scientific or historical artifacts contained within the monument’s boundaries.

Zinke also noted that the overwhelming majority of comments favoring maintaining the monuments “demonstrated a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations,” while opponents who favored rescinding or modifying monuments tended to be local residents or those associated with grazing, logging, mining, hunting, fishing, and motorized recreation.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation nonprofit group based in Tucson, Arizona, filed a Freedom of Information Act request that the report be made public.

It’s All About Size

Monument size has clearly been a point of contention. All but one of the 27 monuments under review contain 100,000 acres or more. In signing an Executive Order calling for the analysis, Trump took aim at Obama, who created or expanded more monuments (34) and protected more acreage than any other president (550 million acres), although most of that acreage is in five marine monuments. The Antiquities Act, Trump said, “does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it’s time that we ended this abusive practice.”

Rep. Bishop emphasized size as well. “It was widely understood that the Antiquities Act was to be limited as a tool for presidents,” he said. “It was not a wholesale delegation of power from Congress.”

Still, legal experts say the president’s authority to determine monument size was settled by the Supreme Court in 1907, after Roosevelt’s creation of the Grand Canyon National Monument was challenged by mining interests. They argued Roosevelt had violated a clause of the four-paragraph law that requires monuments to be “the smallest area compatible with … the objects to be protected.” The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Roosevelt, finding that the president’s authority extends to determining a monument’s size.

What the law does not make clear are boundary adjustments. Monument boundaries have been redrawn about 20 times by multiple presidents. Most of the changes were minor and none have been challenged in court. The fate of the monument boundaries Trump may redraw remains uncertain.

Bishop and Trump also complained that Obama and Clinton had abused presidential power by creating monuments without adequately involving the public, although the Antiquities Act does not require public involvement. Obama created Bears Ears after five years of public meetings, which also involved negotiations between five tribes that first proposed the monument to protect the West’s largest collection of tribal artifacts, as well as Utah lawmakers who also sought to protect Bears Ears, but on a smaller scale.

When Clinton created Grand Staircase, he kept the Utah congressional delegation in the dark until it was too late. They learned the news at the same time as the public, infuriating them. Creating the Grand Staircase put a lucrative seam of coal deep inside the monument out of reach of miners. But it’s not as if the monument size and boundaries haven’t been examined before now. The Utah Association of Counties sought unsuccessfully to overturn the monument in court. Congress has also already readjusted the monument’s boundaries with legislation that involved a substantial land exchange and federal payment to the State of Utah.

“To me, once Congress has put its stamp of approval on that sort of land exchange, it’s only Congress that can change that,” says Robert Keiter, director of the Wallace Stegner Center of Land Resources and the Environment at the University of Utah’s law school. ”The president does not have authority in the face of congressional action, given that Congress has unlimited authority over public lands under the Constitution.”

This story was last updated at 6:40 pm on August 24.