All Eyes on Bears Ears
Over the weekend, the head of the Department of Interior, Ryan Zinke, submitted a report to the White House recommending to scale back protections for the Bears Ears National Monument in Southern Utah. In his report, Zinke suggests that President Trump “revise the existing boundaries” of the monument, which was designated by President Obama after many years of hard work by a diverse coalition of tribal and environmental groups. This new development is the latest confirmation that the Trump administration intends to take bold, unprecedented action to erode the protections for millions of acres of land across the country that belong to you and me.
Secretary Zinke’s report is the product of a review mandated by President Trump in his late-April Executive Order, which sought to challenge National Monument designations all across the country and erode one of the key conservation tools used by presidents of both parties for the past 100 years - the Antiquities Act. The order directs a special review of over 20 National Monuments designated since 1996, which could lead to the elimination of protections for millions of acres of public land, including Bears Ears and the newly expanded Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southern Oregon. In essence, Trump’s move constitutes his administration’s most aggressive action against America’s public lands, and yet again pits his administration in stark contrast with the opinions of the overwhelming majority of Americans.
President Trump and radical anti-public land politicians in Congress claim that the general public was not involved in the decision-making for these designations, a problem the Trump administration allegedly sought to correct by opening up a short comment period for Bears Ears and a longer comment period for other monuments designated since 1996. This larger comment period will remain open until July 10 and includes the review of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. If you haven’t commented yet, consider doing so to make sure the Trump administration knows where you stand on this important issue.
If there was ever any ambiguity about how the general public felt about National Monuments before, this comment period has clarified the strong support Americans have for the Antiquities Act and the monuments it has created. Since late April, Zinke has received over 150,000 comments from the public, the vast majority of which demonstrate overwhelming support for National Monuments.
The Center for Western Priorities conducted a random sample of hundreds of the comments submitted so far and they found that roughly half of comments generated mentioned Bears Ears specifically and yet just 2.8 percent called for eliminating or reducing monuments, with 96 percent of comments submitted urging Zinke to leave monument boundaries alone! Contrary to the rhetoric being tossed around by Utah politicians bent on eliminating the protections afforded by National Monuments, the Center for Western Priorities was able to determine that 88 percent of commenters who lived in Utah expressed support for keeping national monuments as they are, while only 11 percent requested President Trump shrink or rescind monuments.
Despite the nearly unanimous sentiment among the general public who commented, Zinke chose to ignore the findings entirely in his official report to the president and instead pointed to the handful of comments received from industry-friendly Utah politicians who oppose Bears Ears to justify his bold recommendations. This maneuver clearly exposes the actual motivation behind the review: to erode protections for these lands and open them up for extractive degradation and private profit.
One crucial question remains, is any of this even legal? Legal scholars and lawyers are largely in agreement that any attempt to amend or eliminate the monument designation of a previous president would constitute a violation of the Antiquities Act, unless Congress were to amend the act directly to give the president such authority. During his confirmation hearing, Zinke was asked about this specific point by Sen. Heinrich (D-NM), to which Zinke responded, "It will be interesting to see if the President has the authority to nullify a monument... Legally, it is untested." In the weeks that followed, Rep. Grijalva (D-AZ) also tried to receive further clarification on this front but failed to get a response.
Well, now I think it’s safe to say Ryan Zinke has made up his mind about a president's legal authority under the Antiquities Act to redraw the monument boundaries. This week Zinke travels to Maine to review their new National Monument, let’s hope his next trip isn’t to Southern Oregon...
If you're in Portland, come check out forum on National Monuments on June 20 for some thoughtful discussion, free beer, and next steps on the campaign to protect our monuments!
If you're in Corvallis, consider joining Oregon Wild and coalition partners for a Public Lands Forum on June 22. This event is part of a series of community forums taking place across the entire state this summer to help build greater awareness of public lands, their many values, and their current political threats, so come check it out if you're nearby!