National monuments review a ‘cruel game’ to Zinke’s critics
In many respects, the Trump administration’s second look at national monuments across the country is playing out less like a typical government review and more like a season of “Survivor.”
So far, four monuments have been spared, while a fifth — the sprawling Bears Ears National Monument in Utah — has been recommended for massive cuts. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, has rejected the idea of issuing one comprehensive study at the end of his work and instead is announcing winners and losers as he goes.
The most recent announcement was Wednesday afternoon, when Mr. Zinke said he believes the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument should be left alone.
“I am recommending to the president that no changes be made to the monument,” he said. “The monument is one of the only free-flowing areas of the
Missouri that remains as Lewis and Clark saw it more than 200 years ago.”
Critics argue that such an announcement is a wholly inappropriate way of treating the entire process and one that harks back to President Trump’s history with reality TV, with individual contenders being allowed to stay or being dismissed on an almost weekly basis.
In addition, opponents argue that Mr. Zinke hasn’t adequately explained his decision-making process and has left monument backers — including lawmakers, Indian tribes and other stakeholders — in the dark.
“The Trump administration is playing a cruel game with America’s public lands and the American public,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Zinke is making up his own rules and ignoring more than 2.5 million people who urged him to leave these monuments as they are. At least on TV game shows, the contestants are told what the rules are. This so-called review process is appalling.”
Mr. Trump signed an executive order this year kick-starting the first-of-its-kind monument review, which is designed to figure out whether past presidents — especially President Obama, who designated more land and sea as national monuments than any of his predecessors — abused the century-old Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the power to create monuments.
The legislation specifically says presidents should use the smallest area possible in designating a monument, but Mr. Obama frequently used the act to cordon off huge swaths of wilderness, shutting down federal land to energy exploration and other activities.
The first monument in the crosshairs was Bears Ears, a 1.35-million-acre tract in Utah that Mr. Zinke said includes hundreds of thousands of acres that don’t appear to meet the proper definition of a monument. The secretary’s interim recommendations would dramatically shrink the size of Bears Ears, a decision he announced shortly after visiting the site.
Mr. Zinke recently announced that other monuments would be left as is.
He said Washington’s Hanford Reach National Monument, Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, and Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients each would remain intact.
In each instance, the secretary made the announcement through widely circulated press releases that induced sighs of relief from monument supporters.
“This is great news for Colorado, and I’m thrilled the Department of the Interior listened to Coloradans and will make no changes to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument’s designation,” Sen. Cory Gardner, Colorado Republican, said after the monument’s fate was announced.
Other Republicans argue that the process, while perhaps a bit unorthodox, is the right way to go about such a consequential study. They say the individual announcements show that the administration is committed to a transparent process that incorporates voices from all sides and then comes to decisions quickly and publicly.
“What’s happening is positive and historic — unprecedented transparency,” said Katie Schoettler, a spokeswoman for the House Natural Resources Committee.
The Interior Department says it’s simply fair to make announcements as soon as decisions are made.
“As monuments are reviewed and found to require no modification, the department is removing them from the review and letting press and local stakeholders know the department’s decision. We get questions from the press and other stakeholders, and it’s our job to keep them all informed. It’s common sense,” said Heather Swift, the Interior Department’s press secretary.
Mr. Zinke’s monument tour continued last weekend as he visited New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. His trip included helicopter and ground tours of the area, and meetings with local lawmakers, tribal leaders and other officials.
A decision on that monument’s fate is expected soon.
He also has visited Nevada’s Gold Butte and Basin and Range monuments. Similar to what critics of the Bears Ears decision said, Mr. Zinke’s opponents said his fact-finding tour and listening sessions in Nevada seemed more like formalities than sincere attempts to gather information.
“They turned it into a political event instead of making it what it was supposed to be, getting good information about the value of our monuments. We don’t appreciate it,” Rep. Dina Titus, Nevada Democrat, said following Mr. Zinke’s trip to the state, as quoted by E&E News.
Decisions on the Nevada monuments also are expected soon.
Environmentalists, many of whom have vowed to wage an unprecedented legal war against any attempts to downsize monuments, say Mr. Zinke’s handling of the process proves that Interior’s true motive is to free up protected federal land for energy exploration.
“This Interior Department is clearly in the pocket of the oil and gas industry, so communities will have to fight harder than ever to defend their public lands from corporate exploitation,” said Diana Best, a senior climate campaigner with Greenpeace. “The bottom line is that the national monument review is completely in tune with the rest of the dysfunction coming from the Trump administration in that it is both incompetent and malicious.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has visited Nevada’s Gold Butte and other national monuments. Opponents said his fact-finding tour and listening sessions in Nevada seemed more like formalities than sincere attempts to gather information.