Interior Secretary Recommendations on National Monuments Remain Secret

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Giant trees in Giant Sequoia National Monument. (John Buie/Flickr)

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is recommending that none of 27 national monuments under review by the Trump administration should be eliminated, but is not releasing publicly his recommendations for how many acres should be removed from protection.

The agency released a draft summary today that gave no information about which monuments would be affected or how extensively they might be changed, but did say that in some monuments, "boundaries could not be supported by science or reasons of practical resource management."

Zinke told The Associated Press there would be changes to a “handful” of national monuments. He said he will recommend adjusting the boundaries of some monuments though none of the sites would revert to new ownership.

In a press release Thursday, Zinke said his review “provides a much needed change for the local communities who border and rely on these lands for hunting and fishing, economic development, traditional uses, and recreation.”

He also spoke of protecting tribal interests and historical land grants, pointing to monuments in New Mexico, where Hispanic ranchers have opposed two monuments proclaimed by President Barack Obama.


More concrete details are not available. The White House told KQED a final report will be released in coming weeks.

Environmentalists Aghast at Lack of Transparency

“This is further evidence that this bogus review was all along a front for a much more ominous and well-orchestrated agenda to dismantle America’s natural treasures for the benefit of private profiteers," said Dan Rossman of the Wilderness Society. "Sacred places like Bears Ears and other public lands are not commodities to be given away in sweetheart business deals for the fossil fuel and logging industries.”

Significant reductions in the size of the monuments, especially those created by Obama, would mark the latest in a string of actions where Trump has sought to erode his Democratic predecessor’s legacy.

In February, Trump directed Zinke to review national monuments that protect more than 100,000 acres and were established after 1996. There are 27 monuments that fall within that category, including six in California. Since that time, Zinke has recommended no changes be made to Sand and Snow National Monument or to five monuments in other states.

What's at Stake

Zinke conducted an unprecedented four-month review fueled by the belief that the century-old Antiquities Act had been misused by past presidents to create oversized monuments that hinder energy development, grazing and recreational uses.

The review raised alarm among conservationists concerned by the possible loss of ancient cliff dwellings, towering sequoia trees, deep canyons and ocean habitats. Rossman emphasized that more than 90 percent of the public comments were opposed to altering any public land protections.

“This review continues to be run like a bad reality TV show. The American public -- particularly the 2.8 million Americans who took the time to express opposition to changing protections for our natural wonders -- are left wondering just what Secretary Zinke is recommending,” said Rossman.

Zinke declined to reveal details on his recommendations for individual sites in an interview with the The Associated Press.

He also struck back against conservationists who had warned of impending mass selloffs of public lands by the Trump administration.

“I’ve heard this narrative that somehow the land is going to be sold or transferred,” Zinke said. “That narrative is patently false and shameful. The land was public before and it will be public after.”

Impending Legal Battle

National monument designations add protections for lands revered for their natural beauty and historical significance with the goal of preserving them for future generations. The restrictions aren’t as stringent as national parks, but some policies include limits on mining, timber cutting and recreational activities such as riding off-road vehicles.

The Wilderness Society says any efforts to reduce national monuments are unacceptable, unprecedented and likely to be overturned in court.

Senator Dianne Feinstein has pledged that California will fight any attempt to eliminate protected land. In a press release today she said, “Unfortunately, he’s [Zinke] keeping the details of that decision secret, providing nothing more than a brief report summary that fails to name the monuments he suggests cutting. The American people have the right to see his entire report. A proposal to strip protections from public lands should be made public immediately.”

The History of National Monuments

The monuments under review were designated by four presidents over the last two decades. Several are about the size of the state of Delaware, including Mojave Trails in California, and Utah's Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears, which is on sacred tribal land.

Many national monuments were later declared national parks. Among them were Zion National Park in Utah and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

No other president has tried to eliminate a monument, but the National Park Service says presidents have trimmed and redrawn boundaries 18 times.

Many times, presidents reduced monuments only slightly, as when Franklin Roosevelt removed about 52 acres from Arizona’s Wupatki National Monument in 1941 to make way for a dam. But occasionally the changes were drastic, like President Woodrow Wilson’s move in 1915 to cut Mount Olympus National Monument roughly in half to open more land for logging.

Environmental groups said the 1906 Antiquities Act is intended to shield significant historical and archaeological sites, and that it allows presidents to create the monuments, but gives only Congress the power to modify them.