On paper, it’s a “review” and a “listening tour.”
But if, as many suspect, the Trump White House has already decided it wants to rescind more than two dozen national monuments dating back to the Clinton presidency, then “charade” is a more accurate term.
Why are some skeptical about just how objective the review by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will be? For starters, there was the Trump hyperbole on the campaign trail about federal land grabs – even though most of the new monuments were already managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Then there is the statement by Zinke justifying his review as "the first ever formal public comment period for members of the public to officially weigh in on monument designations under the Antiquities Act of 1906."
But as Bill Hedden of the Grand Canyon Trust has pointed out, a highly public campaign addressing protection for Bears Ears began in 2011 with an effort by the Native American-led nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah. In 2015, an intertribal coalition began to develop a more formal proposal for a Bears Ears national monument. Then in both 2015 and 2016 Obama Administration officials made visits to the area, holding a public meeting last year that local news agencies reported was attended by more than 1,400 people.
6 YEARS VS. 15 DAYS
Yet what took six years of input Zinke wants to truncate now to 15 days – that’s the window for public comment he has set for Bears Ears.
In all, there are five national monuments in the Four Corners area covering 4.5 million acres that Zinke will be reviewing under Trump’s April 27 executive order. If the White House and/or Congress act to rescind them, there will almost surely be a court battle that will take years. So Bears Ears and other monuments aren’t going away anytime soon.
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But the review itself raises questions about just how much local citizens can count on the permanence of federal land use designations. Will this set a precedent for White House reviews and rescissions every four years? And will the states be expected to step in as land owners and administrators, even if they disagree with the decisions? The national parks and monuments in Arizona alone are a $995 million a year boon to local economies. There needs to be predictability beyond the four-year presidential campaign cycle.
The irony about all of the grandstanding over monument designations for some BLM and Forest Service lands is that most of the dire predictions about ranchers kicked off grazing allotments and wrecked local economies simply haven’t come to pass. Vermilion Cliffs, Grand Canyon-Parashant and Grand Staircase-Escalante have seen little, if any, change in uses in the last two decades. The biggest change – denying new uranium mining permits for 20 years in the Grand Canyon watershed – hasn’t occurred inside a national monument, and so far the Trump White House isn’t talking about lifting that ban.
As we have noted in past editorials, collaboration among various stakeholders in setting proposed monument boundaries and uses is always better than unilateral executive action (Congressional action, all agree, is a lost cause.) The original proposed area for Bears Ears shrank considerably by the time President Obama issued his declaration, but we’ll acknowledge that Grand Staircase-Escalante emerged from below radar at the last minute. And we suppose there is still room for designating parts of the new monuments for more intensive uses, with limited motorized travel corridors for forest restoration.
But on the whole, western monuments succeed because they can protect natural and cultural resources on a landscape level. Carving out corridors for highways, power lines and mining operations defeats the purpose of preserving the integrity and balance of natural areas.
TWO WORDS: 'GRAND CANYON'
To those who say national monuments were never intended for anything other than limited cultural sites and natural features, we have a two-word response: Grand Canyon. Teddy Roosevelt came and saw a natural wonder of the world under threat from mining and unbridled tourism. He unilaterally designated it a national monument, buying it time until Congress could declare it a national park in 1919. No one today has any regrets over Roosevelt’s action, and that is true 100 or even 50 years out from most decisions to protect wildlands from development and overuse.
If Ryan Zinke does his homework, he will find a legacy of federal stewardship of special lands in the West that, although imperfect, is far preferable to turning them over to private enterprise by way of the states. These are lands belonging to all U.S. citizens, and survey after survey shows the public wants them protected, especially in a region with rapid population growth and backcountry access. If Zinke has a better idea than monuments and national parks, let him spell him out in detail and defend it – then conduct another listening tour that we hope lasts longer than 15 days.