Today President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing the Interior Department to review national monument designations made by his predecessors over the last 21 years.
The action was brought on by Utah legislators who claim that former President Barack Obama abused powers granted through the Antiquities Act when he designated the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah as one of his last acts before leaving office. Conservationists say the designation was necessary to protect the fragile environment and archeological sites from extraction industries, development and other human impacts. Furthermore, they state that Obama’s action was appropriate–well within the scope of the Antiquities Act.
Utah government officials have been pressuring Trump to rescind or reduce Bears Ears as well as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument–which was designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996–hence the 21-year review.
Bears Ears includes world-class climbing areas such as Indian Creek, and the outcome of the review could have broad implications for the future of all national monuments, many of which contain climbing areas.
In response to Trump’s new executive order, the American Alpine climb released a statement indicating concerns about “how this order will impact the future of critical climbing resources, our public lands and the Antiquities Act–the conservation tool used for more than 100 years to safeguard our country’s important archaeological, historic and scientific resources on public lands.”
Native American groups also have deep ties to these regions and depend on them for their way of life. In his proclamation designating Bears Ears Monument, Obama wrote:
Traditions of hunting, fishing, gathering, and wood cutting are still practiced by tribal members, as is collection of medicinal and ceremonial plants, edible herbs, and materials for crafting items like baskets and footwear. The traditional ecological knowledge amassed by the Native Americans whose ancestors inhabited this region, passed down from generation to generation, offers critical insight into the historic and scientific significance of the area. Such knowledge is, itself, a resource to be protected and used in understanding and managing this landscape sustainably for generations to come.
In a press conference prior to the event, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters that the order was only a review of how the Antiquities Act has been used.
“The executive order is carefully crafted to review. It doesn’t predispose an outcome,” he said.
The statements made by Trump and others at the signing, however, suggested changes are on the way. When he introduced Trump for a live broadcast of the signing, Vice President Mike Pence declared: “In just a few moments President Trump will undo one of the greatest executive overreaches in American History.”
Trump said the order will “end another egregious abuse of power…. We’re now getting something done that many thought would never get done.”
[High Country News published a fact check, disputing several of Trump and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch’s recent statements pertaining to the Bears Ears Monument here.]
Zinke said the executive order directs the Interior to provide an interim report to the president within 45 days of the day of the order and a final report to the president within 120 days of that order. He said he expects to have a recommendation on Bears Ears in 45 days.
“The 45-day review is pretty much centered on Bears Ears, because that’s the most current one,” he said. “My obligation is to wrap up at least my recommendation in 120 days. The recommendation I could save for further review.
“The Antiquities Act of 1906,” Zinke continued, “it did give the president the authority to declare historic monuments, landmarks, prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic and scientific interest on federal lands. Also in the Antiquities Act, authors specified the scope of the authority to ‘designate the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.’ That’s verbiage from the act itself. So…the average size of the monuments’ designations over the past years has increased. I think that should be worthy of notice. Since the 1990s, when the act was first used, the average size of the national monuments came from 422 acres to, today, in the millions of acres.”
“If anything, the new [Bears Ears] monument is too small to include all of the relevant cultural landscape–it should stretch eastward to connect with Canyon of the Ancients National Monument in southwestern Colorado,” Jonathan Thompson wrote in the article for High Country News titled “Fact-checking Trump’s Antiquities Act Order.”
Monument supporters respond
Prior to Trump’s signing of the order, some proponents of the monument were supportive of the idea of an honest review, saying it would strengthen the legitimacy of why these monuments were designated. But after hearing Trump’s recent statements they have since changed their views in response to what they perceived to be a threat.
The Access Fund, which works to protect climbing areas and helped create Bears Ears Monument, issued the following statement on its website:
This Executive Order may be the first step in undermining the authority of the Antiquities Act. Access Fund and legal experts doubt that a president has the authority to revoke or modify a national monument, and attacks on the Antiquities Act are a threat to our public lands.
The Antiquities Act has protected some on our country’s most important climbing areas, like Joshua Tree, Devils Tower, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Because of this, we have endorsed administrative designation of national monuments when the legislative process has been exhausted.
Friends of Cedar Mesa Executive Director Josh Ewing wrote:
The tone of today’s announcement by President Trump and the exceedingly short 45-day review window concern me that this very well could be a sham review with the result already determined. I would welcome any real, fact-based review of the Bears Ears Monument, which holds more archaeological sites than any other US National Park or National Monument*. As you know, former Secretary Sally Jewell spent extensive time studying this issue, spending multiple days on the ground and hosting a public meeting with more than 1,500 people. If that kind of effort is taken to talk to all sides–most importantly sovereign Native American Tribes–I’m confident a review will confirm the international importance of the Bears Ears Cultural landscape. On the other hand, if a review is short-hand for only listening to a few political opponents of the monument, ignoring archaeologists and local supporters, then it’s a waste of the American taxpayer’s dollar that can only result in the land being further damaged due to inaction by those who claim to care about this remarkable place.
[*Ewing said this is an estimate “that no archaeologist has questioned and many have supported. However, because of how new the monument boundaries are, there has not yet been a published, peer-reviewed estimate.”]
Utah Dine Bikeyah is a Native American group that initiated efforts to protect the Bears Ears area in 2010. UDB Board Chairman Willie Grayeyes issued this statement about Trump’s order:
UDB condemns this partisan attack. We also believe Bears Ears National Monument to be the most qualified area designated in the past 21 years, and also the most thoroughly studied, researched, and vetted by all sides. This monument enjoys support in Utah, is an economic driver for our reservation communities here in San Juan County, and it enables more local control and stewardship of the region by local Tribes and Utahns. Personally, I don’t understand why Utah officials can’t put these weapons down, sit down with Tribal leaders and San Juan County citizens and all work together on these issues we agree upon.
Hatch has his day
Utah Senator Orrin Hatch wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post that was published April 25, in which he referred to the Antiquities Act as a “blunt instrument for executive overreach” and said he was pleased to work with the Trump administration.
“The Bears Ears are sacred to local Native American tribes, and the surrounding area is home to thousands of archaeological sites that detail the history of the land’s ancient inhabitants,” Hatch wrote. “That these cultural sites deserve protection is beyond dispute. But how they should be protected is a matter of significant disagreement.”
Utah legislators have been pressing for the state to have more control in how federal lands are managed within its borders. Prior to Obama’s designation of Bears Ears, Utah lawmakers were–and still are–proposing their Public Land Initiative, championed by Hatch and others. Critics of the PLI say it promotes fossil fuel development and motorized recreation while restricting the national government’s ability to preserve natural and cultural resources, and that it also makes it much more difficult to set aside other areas for protection in the future.
Preferring to protect the land through legislation instead of an executive order, Obama had repeatedly asked Congress to pass a bill, but the House of Representatives never brought it to a vote.
“Orrin Hatch would call me and call me,” Trump said at the signing, “and [he would] tell me, you gotta do this, and he wouldn’t stop…. This is a massive federal land grab that’s gotten worse and worse, and now we’re going to free it up.”
Access Fund Policy Director Erik Murdock points out that calling monument designations a “federal land grab” is misleading because the land has always been federal land–the difference is that a monument designates it for protection.
“The long-term effect is that calling these designations into question could undermine the authority of the Antiquities Act,” Murdock said. “And if you start messing with that, then all existing monuments are called into question, and we would call that an attack on our public lands.”
As Trump walked away from the desk where he signed the order, someone asked him how he felt about the legal challenges ahead and made a reference to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“I’m never surprised by the 9th Circuit,” Trump said, chuckling. “We’ll see ’em in the Supreme Court.”
For people who want to get involved, the Access Fund recently posted a blog that recommends “five things you can do to fight for public lands.”
More comprehensive background about the issues in this story can be found here.