The national conversation around public lands thus far this week has been fixed on Trump’s removal of protections for two million acres of Utah land, announced on Monday. But on Tuesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced another major overhaul of land protections: the shrinking of two additional national monuments and changes in management of six other land and marine sites. He released these decisions in a final report that concludes the review of 27 national monuments mandated by Trump’s executive order earlier this year.
As Trump announced, Bears Ears National Monument will be diminished by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 46 percent. Zinke’s report also calls for shrinking Oregon’s 113,431-acre Cascade-Siskiyou and Nevada’s 296,937-acre Gold Butte monuments by unspecified amounts. Both monuments will also undergo changes in the proclamations that designated their protections, opening the door to more motor vehicle use, roads, and commercial logging in Cascade-Siskiyou and more grazing in Gold Butte.
The six monuments that will undergo changes in protections, proclamations, or management include three marine monuments: Northeast Canyons and Seamounts in the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean’s Rose Atoll and Pacific Remote Islands. New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande Del Norte will both be affected, as will Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters.
The report explains that the national monument review’s public comment period saw more than 2.8 million Americans weigh in on their public land, and the overwhelming message was that the lands ought to remain as they are. However, Zinke chalked the support up to “a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple groups” and elected to ignore the majority of the public’s input.
Zinke’s rationale for the changes and the final report itself are vague. For instance, Zinke recommends amendments to both New Mexico monuments’ proclamations to ensure grazing rights despite the fact grazing is already allowed, by permit, in the areas. Zinke explains that, despite not being prohibited, the protections the land merits hinder grazing anyway and he wants to ensure ranchers don’t feel their rights are threatened.
The marine monuments’ recommendations begin the process of opening the protected areas to commercial fishing—which is explicitly banned or nearly eradicated in all three—while simultaneously offering regional councils the opportunity to decide fishing practices in the area along the lines of a progressive sustainability and conservation act.
In Katahdin, Zinke wants to introduce “active timber management,” a vague phrase that groups involved in Katahdin’s protection are still trying to parse out. In his review, Zinke repeatedly brought up timber production as a “traditional use” that monuments have hindered, to the detriment of the community around the monument. With his recommendations for Katahdin, which Zinke notes has a “strong historical role of timbering” and that commercial logging has been hindered by the designation, it seems Zinke would open the monument to commercial logging. Despite the fact that hunting and snowmobiling is already allowed in portions of Katahdin (the result of a five-year local debate as to how to balance different recreational interests in the monument), Zinke also recommended opening more of the monument to hunting and snowmobiling.
More broadly, he has concerns about lost jobs, explaining that the jobs brought in through tourism and recreation are “seasonal, and the revenues resulting from tourism, do not necessarily offset the lost or forgone employment and revenue resulting from the limitations placed on land development.” He also believes the monuments seek to protect sites or objects that are too loosely defined—things like biodiversity or not-yet-dug-up dinosaur bones.
New Mexico and Oregon lawmakers have spoken out against the decision to alter their monuments. In a statement, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) accused Zinke’s report of being “based on hearsay and erroneous data,” and went on to explain that the vast majority of New Mexico residents support keeping the monuments just as they are. “For months, thousands of New Mexicans have told the Trump Administration to keep their hands off our public lands, but it appears they aren’t listening…I am deeply disappointed Secretary Zinke and President Trump have turned a deaf ear to the overwhelming consensus to protect New Mexico’s conservation legacy, but it comes as no surprise given their track record of declining public meetings, making decisions behind closed doors, and never even stepping foot in the Rio Grande del Norte,” said Heinrich, who promised “fierce opposition.” In a letter in July, Oregon’s Attorney General Ellen F. Rosenblum threatened legal action if the Cascade-Siskiyou monument were shrunk.
Zinke also recommended that three monuments be created; at Kentucky’s 4,000-acre Camp Nelson, a Civil War historical site used by primarily African-American Union soldiers; at civil rights activist Medgar Evers’ home in Mississippi; and the 130,000-acre Bagder-Two medicine area within Montana’s Lewis and Clark National Forest.
Trump’s decision to remove over 1,900,000 acres of land protection is unprecedented (and that number doesn’t include unspecified changes imminent for Gold Butte and Cascade Sisikiyou). Since the Antiquities Act was passed in 1906, just two other presidents have removed a net total of land from the national monument system: Eisenhower, who took away protections for 26,000 acres, and Taft, who removed protections for a mere 500 acres. All other presidents have added land or remained neutral.
Photo by Bob Wick, courtesy of the BLM.