Donald Trump’s decision to slash the size of two national monuments in Utah is an unprecedented attack on public lands that should worry anyone who cares about having access to pristine wild places or preserving priceless archaeological treasures.
Earlier this week, Trump shrank the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments — designated by the Obama and Clinton administrations — by almost 2 million acres. And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who reviewed 27 national monuments established since 1996 under the century-old Antiquities Act, also issued a report calling for cutting Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou monuments.
Trump’s move seems to be a wish come true for Western conservatives like Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who raised the issue repeatedly with Trump and with Donald Trump Jr. during the 2016 campaign, according to The Washington Post.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Almost two-thirds of the land in Utah is managed by the federal government, according to The New York Times, prompting resentment about lack of local control and, presumably, pointy-headed bureacrats Back East. Yet without broader federal protection, there’s a high risk that developers, loggers, and oil and gas companies will commercialize these unparalleled public resources. Zinke’s report seems to open the door a crack to timbering at Mount Katahdin in Maine — or as he puts it, “active timber management” — and to commercial fishing in the rich aquatic ecosystem of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts off Georges Bank.
Indeed, fishing industry groups have filed suit, arguing that the national monument designation threatens their livelihood. But that particular undersea landscape is fragile and irreplaceable: marked by rocky crags and deep cuts in the Continental Shelf, and home to some 70 species of coral, whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and a vast array of fish. Maine’s beloved Atlantic puffins, a tourist attraction in their own right, make this their winter feeding ground. Allowing commercial fishing boats would do irrevocable damage.
When Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906, it gave the president singular authority to act quickly to protect landmarks of “historic or scientific interest” in an era of rapacious robber barons. The same law, however, stipulates that only Congress can rescind or reduce protections, according to lawyers for the Conservation Lands Foundation. That balance of power was reaffirmed by Congress in the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and it remains essential. When it comes to national monuments, Trump has no right to repeal and replace.