Donald Trump was widely condemned on Monday for drastically shrinking two national monuments, representing the biggest elimination of public lands protection in US history.
The president modified designations for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, potentially opening the land to big corporate developers and the oil and gas industry. The move – a repudiation of past presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton – seems certain to be challenged in court.
“Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington,” Trump said at the state capitol in Salt Lake City. “And guess what? They’re wrong.
“The families and communities of Utah know and love this land the best, and you know the best how to take care of your land. You know how to protect it, and you know best how to conserve this land for many, many generations to come.”
Bears Ears will be slashed from nearly 1.5m acres to 228,784 acres, while Staircase will be halved from around 2m acres to 1,006,341 acres.
Trump, who has focused intently on undoing Barack Obama’s legacy, described his predecessor’s Antiquities Act designations as a threat to people’s way of life, imposing restrictions on hunting, ranching and economic development. “As many of you know, past administrations have severely abused the purpose, spirit and intent of a century-old law known as the Antiquities Act,” he continued.
“This law requires that only the smallest necessary area be set aside for special protection as national monuments. Unfortunately, previous administrations have ignored the standard and used the law to lock up hundreds of millions of acres of land and water under strict government control.”
Trump claimed: “With the action I’m taking today, we will not only give back your voice over the use of this land, we will also restore your access and your enjoyment. Public lands will once again be for public use because we know that people who are free to use their land and enjoy their land are the people most determined to conserve their land.”
But his move to shrink the national monuments represents a triumph for fossil fuel industries, ranchers and Republicans, particularly those representing Utah, who have pushed the president to undo protections put in place by previous administrations that curb activities such as oil drilling and cattle grazing.
In April, promising to “end another egregious use of government power”, Trump ordered a review of national monuments declared since the 1990s.
The interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, who has been a vocal proponent of allowing greater development including mining on public lands, recommended shrinking six monuments and altering the management plans of a further four.
If Trump follows through with all those recommendations, protected areas in Nevada, Oregon and California would be resized, as well as two vast marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean. The areas could be remodeled to allow activities such as timber production, grazing or commercial fishing.
Zinke told reporters on Air Force One that “no one loves public land more than I do” and he is a “steadfast believer in public lands for public use” but added: “When a monument is used to prevent rather than protect, the president is right to take action.”
In the case of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, Zinke said the whole Utah congressional delegation supports Trump’s move, as well as the governor and commissioner that represents the Navajo districts.
He insisted that this was not an energy issue, claiming that there was no oil and gas in Bears Ears, though this is not clearcut. There are dozens of abandoned mines in Bears Ears but none has been operational for at least 20 years and national monument designation has placed restrictions on new energy development.
However, there is oil and gas production clustered near the northern and eastern borders of the monument and some companies believe there is potential for more. Since 2013, energy firms have unsuccessfully asked the federal Bureau of Land Management to lease more than 100,000 acres for oil and gas drilling either near or within what is now Bears Ears’ boundaries.
While the Trump administration has touted an economic boon from an influx of development, opponents point out that the tourism and local business stimulated by monument declarations is often far more valuable. Companies such as Patagonia, the clothing firm, have railed against Trump’s plan.
In Utah, the president’s decision prompted protests before his arrival to announce it. On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators converged on the steps of the Utah state capitol.
“There’s nothing in our data that’d say, politically, that this is popular,” Lori Weigel, a Republican pollster in Denver, told the Associated Press of efforts to trim monuments.
“I can’t say why Utah elected officials have taken this on more than in other states. But we see widespread recognition that designation of protected land is valued.”
The monuments provide a bulwark for intrinsic values such as natural beauty, endangered species and, importantly to local tribes, heritage. Bears Ears, named after two towering buttes in the heart of the protected area, has around 100,000 archaeological sites, including Native American ceremonial grounds, graves and rock art.
The five Native American tribes that form the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition say legal action is likely against Trump’s decisions on monuments in Utah. Shaun Chapoose, a member of the Ute Indian Tribe business committee, told the Guardian this week Trump’s policy was “another slap in the face in the overall relationship between the federal government and the tribes, and local people”.
US presidents are given sweeping power to protect land and waters under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which was signed by Theodore Roosevelt, an avowed hunter and conservationist. Since then, more than 150 sites have been unilaterally designated monuments by presidents, including the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon.
Obama frequently wielded this power amid Republican howls about executive overreach, creating or expanding 34 national monuments, including Bears Ears last December. Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated by Clinton in 1996.
The Trump administration’s attempt to scale back this legacy will almost certainly encounter a thicket of legal action from enraged environmental groups.
“This is a shameful and illegal attack on our nation’s protected lands,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and now head of Defenders of Wildlife. “Teddy Roosevelt is rolling in his grave. We’ll be seeing President Trump in court.”
Ben Schreiber, senior political strategist at Friends of the Earth, said: “Donald Trump is overseeing the largest elimination of protected areas in US history. Dismantling these monuments is Trump’s latest gift to the corporate interests who backed his campaign. This action is unprecedented and will end up in court.
“Public lands are to be managed for the public, not plundered by private interests that want to make billions off public resources. The majority of Americans want to keep fossil fuels in the ground.”
The White House noted that presidents have modified the boundaries to remove lands from monuments 18 times in the past. It said the most significant reduction occurred in 1915 when President Woodrow Wilson halved Mount Olympus national monument, which is now a national park.
But Democrats were also swift to condemn Trump’s action. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate energy and natural resources committee, said: “Veterans, sportsmen, climbers, hikers and the outdoor economy all depend on open space.
“Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante have been driving a vibrant outdoor economy for years. Now President Trump is using unlawful authority to pollute these special places. His administration deserves an ‘F’ for stewardship.”
Raúl Grijalva, ranking Democrat on the House natural resources committee, added: “This order to destroy our national monuments is as legally sound as the Muslim ban. Mr Trump seems to take a perverse joy in ignoring federal law and dismissing the wishes of Native American tribes, conservation leaders and millions of everyday Americans.
“Presidents don’t have the power to wipe existing monuments off the map and Republicans know it. This is an unpopular president making unpopular decisions without proper legal authority on behalf of ideological extremists and the oil and gas industry. This is the damage that results when we leave Republicans in charge.”
This article was first published by The Guardian on 05 Dec 2017.