More than two decades ago, President Clinton tried to end a long-running political battle over the future of 1.9 million acres of federal land in southern Utah by creating the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Last year, President Obama took a similar step and created the nearly 1.4-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.
Both designations protected vast swaths of public land from mining and other industrial uses, and offered extra safeguards for natural habitats and pre-Columbian Native American sites.
But on Monday, President Trump eviscerated both federal designations. The president’s decision — which is the largest elimination of protected area in American history — senselessly imperils stunningly beautiful natural areas and geological masterworks, as well as tens of thousands of Native American sacred sites and key wildlife habitats.
Trump didn’t travel to the red rock canyons of Utah to make his announcement, proudly declaring from the state Capitol building in Salt Lake City that he would cut by half the protected area within the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument and remove more than 1 million acres from Bears Ears, leaving only 230,000 acres in two separate new monuments, Shash Jaa (Navajo for Bears Ears) and Indian Creek. Trump said he wanted to undo previous administrations’ “overreach” in establishing monuments much larger than necessary to protect specific sites. Yet he offered no evidence to support his claims of overreach.
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This is nothing more than a giveaway to mining and other extractive industries, and a favor to conservative Republicans in Utah who want federal land turned over to states for management and development.
The Utah monuments were created under the 1906 Antiquities Act, a law intended to give a president the flexibility to act quickly to preserve federal lands that hold “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” Both Republican and Democratic presidents have used the law to preserve land that Congress later decided to designate national parks, including all or parts of the Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion — three gems of the Southwest. In undoing the Grand Staircase designation, Trump imperils a regional outdoor recreation economy that has led to an increase in both jobs and per-capita income, for the chimera of riches from mines that ultimately might never get dug in this vast and remote territory.
Trump isn’t done yet. The undoing of the Utah designations is part of a 27-monument review conducted by the Department of the Interior at Trump’s direction; more trims are likely at some of those other sites. Secretary Ryan Zinke also reportedly has recommended changes in the management of some of the monuments, such as expanding grazing rights and road construction. Trump also has asked for recommendations on possible legislative changes to the Antiquities Act that would make it harder for future presidents to use it.
Fortunately, Trump’s assault on federal lands has energized environmental activists, and several organizations have promised to sue. Among the issues is whether Trump can legally shrink the monuments by declaration. The Antiquities Act gives the president the power to create monuments and it gives Congress the power to make changes, but it is silent on whether a president can undo a predecessor’s declaration.
If Trump could articulate a sensible reason for his actions, he would deserve a listen. But he hasn’t, and such a transparent effort to reward political allies and mining interests should be fought vigorously.