by Ari Natter
President Donald Trump ordered a review of as many as 40 large national monuments that have been declared over the past two decades, beginning a process that could lead to the repeal of protections for those lands and new opportunities for oil and mining companies.
Trump gave Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke 45 days to come up with an initial determination on which, if any, monument declarations issued under the 1906 Antiquities Act should be redrawn or repealed. He called the use of the presidential protections an “egregious abuse” of power from Washington, and vowed to give local communities a chance to weigh in on the set-aside of lands.
“The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up land and water,” Trump said at a signing ceremony at the Interior Department Wednesday. "It’s time we ended this abusive practice.”
Critics say former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush set aside large swaths of land and sea for protection, making them unavailable for oil and natural gas development, as well as mining. Obama designated a total of 554 million acres as national monuments, more than any other president.
Utah is at the forefront of this debate now, as Trump specifically mentioned the Bears Ears monument, which was set aside as one of the final acts by Obama.
Obama protected 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah in the face of opposition from some local residents and the state’s Republican leadership. The Bears Ears Monument, as it’s called, is rich with uranium, oil and natural gas -- as well as iconic rock outcroppings, climbing routes and biking trails. The order set to be issued Wednesday is likely to stop short of the outright repeal of the designation of that monument, which Utah Republicans have requested. But it’s clearly a target, as Zinke told reporters he expects to have a recommendation on it and to visit the area.
While there’s a legal argument about whether Trump could rescind Obama’s set aside, Zinke said this administration could shrink the area protected from mining, drilling or development.
"It’s undisputed the president has the authority to modify a monument," he said.
Congressional Republicans have already been seeking to restrict use of the law through legislation that would place time limits on the duration of national monuments and require approval from states or Congress before land can be set aside.
Utah Representative Rob Bishop, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he plans to craft legislation to ensure that there is appropriate public input and that it’s consistent with the intent of Congress. The committee is planning a hearing on the Antiquities Act next week to highlight what it calls some of the most egregious abuses of the law.
Bishop also wants Trump to erase the Bears Ears monument on his own, without waiting for Congress to act. "It was created by executive fiat, it could be uncreated by executive fiat,” Bishop said in a phone interview.
Obama’s “unilateral withdrawals have routinely come with complete disregard for local concerns and opposition, threatening energy, mining, fishing, ranching, recreation and other reasonable uses of public land and waters," Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources, said earlier this year.
Murkowski introduced the National Monument Designation Process Act in January, which aims to prevent unilateral executive decisions on national monuments.
The current law grants the president the right to establish a national monument; it doesn’t "expressly authorize" a president to abolish a national monument designated by an earlier administration, and no president has done so, the Congressional Research Service said in a report issued last year. However, the law does allow presidents to modify national monuments, an authority that has been used in the past to decrease the size of the Mount Olympus National Monument.
Gale Norton, Bush’s Interior secretary, also conducted a review of national monuments designated by Bill Clinton, but ultimately decided to let them stand, said Kate Kelly, public lands director for the Center for American Progress, a Washington research group with ties to Democrats.
“With this review, the Trump administration is walking into a legal, political and moral minefield," said Kelly, who served as a senior adviser to Obama’s Interior secretary, Sally Jewell. "No president has ever attempted to revoke a national monument –- and for good reason: Such an attack on our nation’s public lands and heritage is deeply unpopular and illegal."
The president doesn’t have the authority to "significantly alter" a national monument, Kelly said in an email.
Not all of the economic arguments are being made against monuments. A group representing the largest U.S. outdoor-recreation companies pulled their trade show from Salt Lake City in protest of Utah’s Republican leadership’s fight against the Bears Ears designation and other disputes over public lands’ protections.
While Republicans are hoping for legislation to curtail monuments, marshaling the bipartisan support necessary to get this through the Senate may not be possible.
"It’s outrageous that Donald Trump is trying to illegally roll back the national monument status of some our country’s most treasured open spaces, designated for protection so the public can enjoy them, all so he can deliver another gift to polluters," said Maria Cantwell, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s top Democrat. "We must fight them every step of the way.”
Watch a video of the signing here.
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