Today, close to the 100-day period of his presidency, Donald Trump will issue an executive order that instructs the Department of the Interior to review all the National Monuments that have been designated under the Antiquities Act, going back until 1996. That’s 57 national monuments. Conservationists worry this could have serious negative effects for these recently designated national monuments, such as Bears Ears in Utah — but no one is yet sure what the review would entail, or what it would mean for these monuments. It’s possible the Trump administration is looking to downsize or attempt to rescind these designations — both possible, and legally dubious.
“By and large, the Antiquities Act and the monuments that we’ve protected have done a great service to the public,” said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “I’m going to be looking into it and evaluating it on a legal basis. [The review] restores the trust between local communities and Washington” and aims “to give Americans a voice and make sure their voices are heard.”
But many conservationists disagree with this “making sure voices are heard” interpretation of the review. “This behind-closed-door review will not include the public, and will let industry pick and choose the areas on land and water that they want most,” Christy Goldfuss, vice president for Energy and Environment Policy at The Center for American Progress, told reporters. “It is not possible to change one monument through this closed-door process without undermining all of them.”
The Antiquities Act was first established in 1906, during a period of widespread looting on in the American West. Congress decided that they needed an expedited way of protecting lands, so they granted the President powers to establish, with the stroke of a pen, national monuments. “Congress was very concerned about the loss of these resources and these landscapes and these treasures that belong to all Americans, and they wanted to get in front of that,” says John Ruple, associate professor at the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment at the University of Utah. The Act does not, however, give a sitting president authority to rescind a national monument’s protected designation.
Presidents have used the Act to varying degrees in U.S. history. A total of 16 presidents — from Theodore Roosevelt to Obama — have used the act to designate national monuments, with only three abstaining, all Republicans: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. Public support is consistently in support of the Act. Some of our most treasured pieces of public land, such as the Grand Canyon and the Grand Teton National Park, were designated national monuments and guaranteed under the Act. The Act also has a very high level of popularity among voters: According to one poll, 80 percent of people in the American West think we should keep National Monument designations in place. “These designations provide protection and assure that pristine and historically important areas of our nation are protected for all Americans to experience and benefit from for generations to come,” says Dr. Stephen Coan, President and CEO of Mystic Aquarium.
Many Congressional Republicans have characterized the use of the Act as a “land grab.” (Congressman Rob Bishop has called it “the most evil act ever invented.” Hatred among Republicans for the Act goes back to 1996 — the year where Trump’s review will begin — when then-President Bill Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, killing plans for a coal mine there. While the Act can only apply to land that is already owned by the federal government once protected, the area cannot be developed or drilled on.
Protected lands can be enormous economic drivers for surrounding communities. “We are confident that a fact-based review of the national parks and public lands protected as monuments by the Antiquities Act will show year over year economic growth,” says Ashley Korenblat, managing director at Public Land Solutions. “Protected public lands are reliable job creators and allow communities who were previously stuck on the resource extraction roller coaster to attract quality of life businesses along with visitors from around the country and the world. Undermining these protections will undermine these communities.” Indeed, in a 2014 review that studied 17 communities adjacent to a national monument — in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and other states — 13 of them grew at a similar or faster pace than other metro areas in the state.
If President Trump plans to revoke or rescind a national monument’s designation, a legal battle would likely follow. The end result remains unclear. But the danger doesn’t just start with the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and end with Bears Ears. It includes many of our most treasured monuments: Browns Canyon in Colorado (2015), Carrizo Plan in California (2001), Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine (2016), and dozens more. “I think this president is going to find a very resistant public,” says Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM). “Any actions taken on behalf of designating or un-designating these national monuments should be part of a conversation with the American public.”