Despite Public Support, Ryan Zinke Recommends Shrinking Bears Ears National Monument

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has finally spoken about what to do with President Obama’s much-contested Bears Ears National Monument: He wants to reduce its size.

This recommendation comes on the heels of a 45-day period in which Zinke was evaluating the national monument — along with dozens of others that have been established under the Antiquities Act — based off of an Executive Order from President Donald Trump. Zinke’s recommendation comes in sharp contrast to public opinion.

The 15-day public comment period on Bears Ears came to a close on May 25, and the data suggests that support for the monument is overwhelming. According to analysis from the Center or Western Priorities, 96 percent of the comments submitted to regulations.gov were supportive of National Monument designations. More than two-thirds of Utah voters support keeping the size and number of National Monuments in the state. A poll from 2016 found that 71 percent of Utah voters supported the monument.

“The decision should be an easy one,” says Jennifer Rokala, executive director for the Center for Western Priorities. “More than 1 million Americans, including Utahns by a 9 to 1 margin, have asked President Trump to leave Bears Ears National Monument alone. Instead of reinforcing America’s conservation heritage, Secretary Zinke is recommending President Trump take actions that are both unprecedented and illegal.”

Many conservationists and hunters feel that a reduction in size in Bears Ears could represent additional attacks on National Monuments coming down the line. As Backcountry Hunters & Anglers’ Land Tawney put it, “An attack on one monument is an attack on them all.”

Some politicians agree. “Today’s announcement… sets the stage for additional attacks on all of America’s national parks and public lands, including New Mexico’s own Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monuments,” says Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). “It’s a page out of the playbook by a small contingent of special interests to dispose of America’s national forests, conservation lands, and open space.”

The Antiquities Act doesn’t explicitly give the executive power to reduce the size or nullify a National Monument — only Congress can do that. Monuments have been downsized by presidents before, but only in special circumstances: In 1915, Woodrow Wilson reduced the size of the Mount Olympus National Monument to create a timber supply for WWI. Without a pressing reason for the reduction in size, many advocates are preparing for a legal battle. Zinke himself has said, “It is untested, as you know, whether the president can do that.”

“Legal scholars believe this is illegal, but it has not been tried before in court,” says Jesse Prentice-Dunn of the Center for Western Priorities. “This action will surely result in years of litigation.”

One of the most worrying elements of the recommendation is that it does not outline how the Trump administration would evaluate how to shrink Bears Ears. It’s not clear what method they will use to determine how many acres to lose or even why they want to shrink the monument. Some activists think this might be an intentional oversight to hide more nefarious intent.

“I expect that Zinke is going to direct his staff to identify the areas within Bears Ears that have the highest potential for resource extraction and then order them to come up with a justification for why those areas do not fit within the Antiquities Act’s mandate to designate the ‘smallest area compatible’ with protection of Bears Ears’ archeological artifacts,” says Chris Krupp of WildEarth Guardians. “It matters because the previous administration drew the boundary where they determined it needed to be drawn to protect Bears Ears. What Zinke is effectively doing is inserting his own clause into the Antiquities Act that says local and industry concerns take precedence over the reasoned judgments of previous administrations.” 

There has been no word yet on whether the Trump administration will take Zinke up on his recommendation — but it seems likely. This sort of recommendation — and its result — seems to have been in the cards all along. As Prentice-Dunn says, “This review was rigged. It was clear from the first day of this review that Secretary Zinke would recommend eliminating or shrinking Bears Ears National Monument.”