Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s review of 27 national monuments came to a close Thursday, resulting in recommendations to shrink the size of at least three monuments.
Only the summary of Zinke’s report to President Donald Trump, which does not discuss any specific changes to the monuments, has been made public. But the Washington Post reported that “the secretary recommended reducing the size of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, as well as Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument,” citing sources familiar with the document.
The Post also reported that Zinke recommended modifying the management rules of other monuments, which would alter their boundaries.
Zinke’s recommendation to reduce the size of Bears Ears is unsurprising. He already suggested reducing the monument’s size in a memo to President Donald Trump in June, writing that it is too big to be “consistent with the intent” of the law.
Grand Staircase-Escalante was also a likely target. Many still disagree with former President Bill Clinton’s decision to establish the monument in 1996, because it upended plans to build a coal mine on the site. Clinton also designated Cascade-Siskiyou as a national monument, and it was expanded by 48,000 acres by former President Barack Obama as one of his last moves in office.
“The recommendations I sent to the president on national monuments will maintain federal ownership of all federal land and protect the land under federal environmental regulations, and also provide a much needed change for the local communities who border and rely on these lands for hunting and fishing, economic development, traditional uses, and recreation,” says Zinke in a statement.
These suggested reductions fly in the face of public opinion. The Center for Western Priorities found in one study that only 1 percent of comments submitted in 60-day public comment period on the review supported shrinking the size of monuments or revoking their status.
“In the United States, once something is a national park, wilderness area or a national monument, we honor the promise that those protections are permanent,” says Matt Lee-Ashley of the Center for American Progress. “That’s the Teddy Roosevelt promise, and Secretary Zinke has shaped up to be about as far from Teddy Roosevelt as I can possibly imagine.”
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers President and CEO Land Tawney echoes Lee-Ashley.
“Secretary Zinke is proposing to dismantle a conservation legacy pioneered by Theodore Roosevelt that has permanently conserved some of our nation’s most valuable public lands and waters,” says Tawney in a statement. “We’re pleased that the administration has acknowledged the overwhelming public support for our national monuments and the Antiquities Act, and we ask him today: ‘What would Theodore Roosevelt do?’”
Presidential authority to shrink the size of national monuments is also legally dubious. If Trump acts upon Zinke’s recommendations without Congress, it will likely result in years of courtroom battles. The American Antiquities Act of 1906 explicitly gives the president the power to designate national monuments, but not to reduce their size. Some conservatives – such as John Yoo and Todd Gaziano at the American Enterprise Institute – argue the president’s power to decrease a monument’s size is implicit in the law.
Other experts disagree. Although presidents have decreased the size of national monuments, they never resulted in any lawsuits and were done before the passage of another law in 1976 that may further limit the president’s reach in this area.
“Based on the analysis that I’ve done, it seems to me that it’s pretty clear that the president does not have authority to revoke national monuments, and it’s unlikely that he has the authority to significantly modify national monuments,” says Robert Keiter, a professor of law and director of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment at the University of Utah, “especially given the 1976 legislation that clarified that Congress intended to retain for itself that authority.”
In other words, if Trump acts in accordance with Zinke’s recommendations, it may be a long time before the issue is resolved.