The Monuments Trump Isn’t Interested in Preserving

Just as the conversation over confederate monuments is heating up again, we are about to be confronted with the fact that there are over 20 monuments the Trump administration might not be interested in preserving.

On April 26th, Trump signed the “Presidential Executive Order on the Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act.” It directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review 27 national monuments designated for preservation by Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. Altogether, they cover 11.2 million acres on land and 217 million acres in the sea. National Geographic has a lot of maps and photos to describe the areas that have been under review, while Juliet Eilperin and Susan Levine provide a rundown of the monuments that are most at risk. Today is the deadline for completing the process and Zinke is expected to release his recommendations shortly.

The president signaled where he was headed with all of this when he described the provisions of the Antiquities Act of 1906 as “an abusive practice.” Why would Trump be so hostile to these particular monuments? Part of the answer to that question is that preserving over 548 million acres on land and sea stands as one of Barack Obama’s most significant legacies. We have seen how this president is determined to attack anything his predecessor accomplished.

But it is actually much bigger than that. As Ryan Cooper documented here at the Washington Monthly back in 2014, this captures the transformation that has been building, particularly in Mountain West, as the “new recreation economy centered around tourism edges out an older extractive economy that relied on mining, timber, drilling, and ranching.”

Much of the discussion about this has centered around Obama’s designation of Bear’s Ear in Utah as a national monument. That state’s Republican delegation has suggested that the process did not include input from the state’s residents. But…

Critics of Bishop, Herbert and others say this argument is a cynical ploy meant to distract from the fact that those lawmakers want to pave the way for natural-resource extraction industries, like mining and oil and natural gas, to plunder the land for profit.

Lawmakers have downplayed the potential for development on the lands, but a recent exploration of Bureau of Land Management documents show energy companies have repeatedly pushed the agency for leases of 100,000 acres within the monument.

The Center for Biological Diversity conducted an analysis that found vast hydrocarbon deposits under the eastern fringe of the park that have enticed the industry since 2013.

Here is how some other lawmakers are responding.

U.S. senators from New Mexico, Colorado, Washington state, Nevada and Hawaii released statements denouncing the Trump administration’s nascent approach to public-lands management.

“Erasing America’s national monuments from the map would devastate our thriving outdoor recreation economy, which generates 68,000 jobs and $6.1 billion of annual economic activity in New Mexico alone,” said New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich. “And it could easily lead us down a slippery slope toward the selloff of our public lands to the highest bidder and massive giveaways of public resources to special interests.”

The senators all said public support for the monuments needs to be considered, but also the economic benefits of tourism associated with the monuments – many of which facilitate a wide array of tourist and recreational activities.

This one comes down to one side arguing for conservation, historic preservation and building a future on the recreational economy vs the other side arguing for selling off public lands to private industry in order to prop up the profits of the extraction economy. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which side Trump will take.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, just like many of Trump’s other initiatives, this one is likely to get caught up in the courts.

Whatever recommendations Zinke makes in the final report will inevitably spur litigation. That’s because the Antiquities Act of 1906 under which national monuments can be designated by the president or Congress has never been fully tested in court.

Many environmental lawyers say the president cannot rescind a predecessor’s designation of a national monument. Whether he can shrink them is less certain. The Federal Land Management and Policy Act of 1976 clearly says the Secretary of Interior can’t do any shrinking. But it’s not clear from the law’s wording if the president can do so. A legislative report issued by the House committee that considered FLPMA when it was just a bill is clear about lawmakers’ intent, stating that the act was drafted with the idea that it “specifically reserve to the Congress the authority to modify and revoke withdrawals for national monuments created under the Antiquities Act.” That presumably could have a major impact on any court ruling in the matter.

On this issue, I’d like to throw some of Trump’s own words right back at him: “They’re trying to take away our culture. They’re trying to take away our history…These things have been here for 150 years, for 100 hundreds of thousands of years…Weak, weak people.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.