President Donald Trump made a point of coming to Utah to announce his plan to reduce the size of two of our national monuments — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Some Utahns welcomed him and the decision. Others did not. But regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the final call, the systematic review of recently created national monuments conducted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been a positive development for a process that has long been in need of reform.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 empowers the president to create national monuments without local input or congressional approval, unilaterally restricting what kinds of activities can take place on the land. The Trump administration’s review adds a layer of oversight that has been sorely lacking in this much-abused process.
Over the past several months, Zinke reviewed 27 monuments created since 1996. In addition to the two Utah monuments, he reportedly recommended reductions for Gold Butte in Nevada, Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon and two marine monuments. He did not recommend any of the recent monument designations be rescinded.
Among the management changes being contemplated are allowing infrastructure upgrades within monuments, increasing tribal access to restricted lands and — most contentious — permitting resource development, including timber harvesting and energy production.
Reducing the size of a national monument would not be unprecedented. Presidents have done it 18 times.
While the Antiquities Act was intended to protect specific sites in imminent danger by designating “the smallest area possible compatible with proper care and management of the objects,” that is not the way it has been used, especially in recent decades.
When President Theodore Roosevelt established the first national monument — Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, shortly after he signed the Antiquities Act into law — it consisted of just 1,153 acres (it’s now 1,347).
Our two recent monuments have a much larger footprint: Bears Ears is 1.35 million acres and Grand Staircase-Escalante, created in 1996, is 1.9 million.
Reflexive demands for more land do not necessarily serve the interests of conservation. The more than $18 billion maintenance backlog on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the Forest Service is testimony to that fact.
Overly large designations can lead to spreading manpower and financial resources too thin. Rather than sheer size, the focus should be on ensuring better protection of the most important historic and cultural objects and sites.
The Bears Ears experience demonstrates that unilateral government action, even with the noblest of intentions, can produce counterintuitive results. The stated objective of the monument is to protect the land. Instead, area tribes fear, the designation will bring increased attention and more tourism, further threatening the most vulnerable sites. What’s needed is a better process that includes real input from residents, tribes and other interested parties whose voices have long been ignored.
Indeed, a group of residents who felt they had been shut out of the process wrote an open letter welcoming the president and applauding plans to reduce the size of the monument. “Bears Ears National Monument has proven to be an unneeded layer of federal bureaucracy of which our great nation simply never needed,” they wrote. “The Antiquities Act demonstrates the abuse of federal power as well as being obsolete in its current form.”
If Zinke’s review and Trump’s decision prove to be harbingers of the kind of change envisioned by these concerned residents, both should be welcomed with open arms.
Evelyn Everton is Utah state director of Americans for Prosperity.