In mid August, President Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, sent a report to the White House recommending modifications to some of the 27 national monuments that he was ordered to place under review. While the report has not been publicly disclosed, on September 17, the Washington Post obtained a copy. Accordingly, we have updated our breakdown of the status of affected monuments in the American West.
Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management
Status updates follow below.
In August, President Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, recommended to the White House that at least three national monuments declared by Presidents Obama and Clinton be reduced in size. A formal announcement of the recommendations for 27 monuments under study since May was expected Thursday. Instead, the report was sent to the White House and no specifics were given to the public, other than an announcement that no monuments would be eliminated. Within hours, The Washington Post reported that at least three monuments would be downsized, including two Utah monuments that sparked outrage on the part of local and state officials, and a monument largely in southwestern Oregon where timber firms and the counties they support are fighting restrictions on harvesting.
It is exceedingly rare to have one executive rescind, without Congressional approval, the actions a predecessor has taken under the 1906 Antiquities Act: in the early 1960s, the last time monument boundaries were altered, President Kennedy added 2,882 acres to New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument, while also removing another 3,925 acres in 1961. A year later, he cut 320 acres from Utah’s Natural Bridges monument.
The acreage reductions involved in these decisions are likely to be an order of magnitude smaller than those expected in the downsizing proposals sent to the White House, raising the legal question of whether any president can effectively undo much his predecessors’ work to hold large swaths of land harmless from destructive uses, or their actions to cordon off historic sites to protect antiquities or unique archaeological or paleontological sites.
The legal arguments supporting this action were made most cogently in The Los Angeles Times last month by John Yoo and Todd Gaziano. In May, four law professors led by Mark Squillace of the University of Colorado, argued there is no legal authority allowing a president, on his own, to take such an action.
Over the coming days, we expect more details of the report will be revealed. In the meantime, here is a look at the proposed changes in seven of the national monuments, and the political and economic context — often including concerted opposition from local governments and local industries — for the controversies that put them on the list.
In late December 2016, President Obama set aside 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah as the Bears Ears National Monument, angering state officials and the county officials in San Juan County, in Utah’s southeast corner. The designation of the land, which includes rich and vulnerable examples of buildings and rock art from prehistoric Native American cultures, prompted many articles pro and con, including some from local residents, which we published in the ‘…& the West’ blog.
In March, the Native American members of the new commission advising the Bears Ears’ management wrote Mr. Zinke a letter reiterating the monument’s value to them. But the land is also important to those who might graze cattle, mine uranium or drill for oil and natural gas. Since 2013, the Interior Department has rebuffed attempts to lease more than 100,000 drillable acres — all of it in or near the monument. Mining of “yellowcake” uranium in the area continues.
The original monument was designed to protect an area of biological diversity. In 2011, scientists urged expansion.
This did not sit well with the timber industry; this year’s expansion sent it, and the Oregon counties that depend on timber revenues, to court. They claim that the prohibitions against timber harvest fly in the face of a 1937 law encouraging timber harvesting to provide revenue for the rural counties that cannot get tax revenue from federal lands. Ranchers are worried that grazing will be restricted; some have sold their grazing permits to environmental groups in anticipation of that outcome.
The reasoning behind establishing this monument echoes that of several other southwestern monuments: protection of rock art, Native American resources, wildlife, and sweeping vistas. But Gold Butte’s land near Las Vegas has a special resonance — it was here in 2014 that the rancher Cliven Bundy’s defiance of federal rules and his refusal to pay fees for cattle grazing led to an armed standoff between the Bureau of Land Management’s enforcement apparatus and the rancher, his family, and assorted armed militiamen. The Bundys had defied the federal government for years and his actions in Nevada, like his son’s in Oregon, won fierce support among antigovernment activists. The monument will still allow grazing — supervised and paid for — but among the local objections, a small town argues that the monument interferes with a local water district’s ability to get an assured supply. The Interior Department’s site for the monument says that visitors can “hike to rock art sites, drive … to the area’s namesake mining ghost town, hunt desert bighorn sheep, or tour the area’s peaks and canyons on horseback.”
Critics, mostly in Utah, had objected to the 1996 declaration of the monument for many reasons, including a strong assertion of state sovereignty over its lands. But the desire to open the Kaiparowits Plateau’s coal seams, containing an estimated 30 billion tons of mineable coal, is also a powerful motive. More than 40 years ago, a plan to build a 3,000-megawatt coal-fired electric generating plant on the plateau was abandoned by three utilities — two in southern California, one in Arizona. Getting the coal to market from the remote plateau has always been a stumbling block to commercial development.
Long advocated by former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, the monument is roughly the size of Rhode Island, sits north of Las Vegas and takes in everything from ancient rock art to arid angular mountains to “City” a collection of abstract sculptures that the artist Michael Heizer took four decades to assemble; it is the size of the national mall in Washington. The anger of local opponents, who felt cut out of the decision and restricted in their future economic development, was voiced by Republican Senator Dean Heller before the monument’s designation. He told E&E News: “an inclusive approach where local parties affected by the designation have a seat at the table to voice their opinion.” He added,"These are the stakeholders most affected by any federal action on this matter.”
Famartin via Wikimedia Commons
The monument, which abuts Sequoia National Park, contains 33 groves of redwoods, the towering trees that got the attention of the world when settlers first saw them in the 19th century. The groves, with names like Indian Basin, Burro Creek, Starvation Complex and Upper Tule, are now surrounded by an undergrowth of smaller trees, millions of which have died thanks to drought and beetle infestations. Some members of the supervisors’ boards in Kern and Tulare Counties want the freedom to allow logging in these areas, though it is not clear who could find profit in the beetle-gnawed trees. And recently, the governing boards in those two counties came to different decisions on whether to send letters opposing the monument Local citizens also held rallies supporting it.
Discussions about the future of this monument almost always include the word “Cadiz,” for two reasons. First, it is the name given to a spectacular group of sand dunes at the at the heart of the monument, which surrounds historic Route 66. Second, it is the name of a company, Cadiz Inc., that has proposed a water pumping, storage and delivery project near the dunes. The project envisions a 43-mile-long pipeline from a groundwater pumping station to the Colorado River aqueduct. From there, the water could flow to customers in southern California. The Cadiz project was supported in March by the local Republican congressman, Paul Cook. In June, he supported cutting 500,000 acres surrounding the pipeline route from the monument.
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