Tradition vs. Tradition

The U.S. Interior Department recommends adjusting the boundaries and/or use of 10 national monuments.

They look like two soft ice cream cones that somebody accidentally dropped on the grass on their way from the refreshment stand to the park. But these unique natural outcrops form the centerpiece of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.

national monumentsAccording to a recent report in The Washington Post, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has included Grand Staircase-Escalante on his list of 10 national monuments that he says need to have their boundaries and/or use adjusted.

We alerted you in June that Zinke had publicly signaled his intention to review the boundaries and use of 27 national monuments and parks that have been established by U.S. presidents under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt. The Post says it’s obtained a memo outlining Zinke’s recommendations, which would initiate the unprecedented step of revising monument designations made by U.S. presidents.

Zinke’s recommendations reportedly calls for six monuments to have their boundaries adjusted, shrinking their overall size; four monuments will maintain their current boundaries, but undergo changes in land-use management; 27 monuments will remain unchanged. The monuments Zinke proposes to adjust include: Bears Ears, UT, Gold Butte, NV; Grand Staircase-Escalante, UT; Cascade-Siskiyou, OR-CA; Pacific Remote Islands; Rose Atoll, Pacific Ocean; Katahdin Woods and Waters, ME; Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, NM; Rio Grande del Norte, NM; and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, Atlantic Ocean.

According to the Post report, Zinke has been careful in his memo to address the proposed adjustments in general terms—the memo repeatedly refers to these changes as “a return to traditional use.” In some cases, the traditional use seems fairly innocuous, like permitting ranchers to have their livestock graze on federal land. In others, Zinke clearly signals he wants to open up some of these protected areas to the timber and commercial fishing industries. The Interior Secretary avoids references to mining, which also has been a traditional use of wide-open spaces out West.

Here’s a sample from the memo: Zinke wants to alter the 2016 proclamation establishing the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Monument to allow for commercial fishing. The monument, designated by President Obama, covers the waters about 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, MA. Obama’s proclamation exempted red crab and lobster fisheries from the ban on commercial fishing in the monument. In his declaration, Obama noted that the protected area is home to more than 54 species of coral that “together with other structure-forming fauna such as sponges and anemones, create a foundation for vibrant deep-sea ecosystems. These habitats are extremely sensitive to disturbance from extractive activities.”

Environmental groups say they’re gearing up for a court challenge if Zinke’s recommendations are enacted by the Trump Administration. This landmark case (okay, we couldn’t resist) undoubtedly will end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

This fight over federal land designations has been brewing for more than a century. Since the Antiquities Act was enacted, the federal government has taken public ownership of hundreds of millions of acres of wide-open spaces, primarily in the Western U.S. and Alaska. The Antiquities Act empowered TR and each of his successors to establish with a stroke of their pen new national parks and monuments that are off-limits to private development.

Teddy cemented his well-earned reputation as America’s greatest conservationist by invoking the Antiquities Act at least 18 times over a three-year period; he established 230 million acres of public land, protecting national treasures like the Grand Canyon and Muir Woods. Only three presidents since 1906 have resisted the temptation to use their power to redraw the federal map: Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush. President Obama set a new record, 265 million acres (257 million acres of Obama’s legacy came from one designation, the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument, hundreds of square miles of protected ocean sanctuaries on the other side of the world).

With the dawning of the atomic age at the end of World War II, the U.S. government dramatically expanded its other primary prerequisite for seizing land from the states: the need to use wide-open spaces to test weapons systems like missiles, tanks and advanced aircraft, and to house sprawling military facilities. Large swaths of the Nevada desert, including the infamous Area 51, are under the control of the Pentagon.

The stakes in this fight are huge (see chart for the states with the most federal land). If Sec. Zinke’s adjustments to national monuments are enacted and upheld, these changes could be the opening salvo of a much wider reevaluation of all federally held land. Stay tuned.