Loss of fed­eral pro­tec­tion risks pres­i­dents’ lega­cies

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NEWS - By Michael Fin­negan

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s re­moval of fed­eral pro­tec­tions from huge por­tions of two na­tional mon­u­ments in south­ern Utah on Mon­day threat­ens to un­der­cut the wilder­ness-con­ser­va­tion lega­cies of his Demo­cratic pre­de­ces­sors Pres­i­dents Barack Obama and Bill Clin­ton.

Whether Trump has the le­gal au­thor­ity to with­draw 1.1 mil­lion acres of land from Bears Ears Na­tional Mon­u­ment and 800,000 acres from nearby Grand Stair­case-Es­calante will soon be tested in court.

Sup­port­ers of the mon­u­ments, which cover vast stretches of Utah’s scenic red-rock coun­try, are pre­par­ing law­suits to block Trump from shrink­ing them.

But Trump’s drive to open wilder­ness to oil, gas, coal and min­eral ex­trac­tion, among other things, is al­ready one of his most sig­nif­i­cant en­vi­ron­men­tal lega­cies, along with his whole­sale scrap­ping of Obama poli­cies to ad­dress cli­mate change.

Ques­tion: How can a pres­i­dent uni­lat­er­ally shrink a na­tional mon­u­ment?

An­swer: The 1906 Antiquities Act em­pow­ers the pres­i­dent to es­tab­lish na­tional mon­u­ments by procla­ma­tion to pro­tect land­marks and ob­jects of his­toric or sci­en­tific in­ter­est. (Cre­ation of a na­tional park re­quires con­gres­sional ap­proval.)

The nam­ing of na­tional mon­u­ments has be­come one of the most vis­i­ble ways for pres­i­dents to es­tab­lish a per­ma­nent legacy. Obama cre­ated Bears Ears in De­cem­ber 2016, a few weeks be­fore the end of his pres­i­dency. Clin­ton named Grand Stair­case-Es­calante as a na­tional mon­u­ment in Septem­ber 1996, seven weeks be­fore his re-elec­tion.

The Antiquities Act says noth­ing about whether pres­i­dents have the power to re­voke na­tional mon­u­ment des­ig­na­tions of their pre­de­ces­sors.

Q: How much land did Trump with­draw from na­tional mon­u­ments in Utah?

A: Bears Ears was 1.35 mil­lion acres. Trump sliced it into two na­tional mon­u­ments to­tal­ing just un­der 229,000 acres.

Grand Stair­case-Es­calante was 1.9 mil­lion acres. Trump split it into three na­tional mon­u­ments to­tal­ing just over 1 mil­lion acres.

Q: Is it just scenic lands that could now be de­vel­oped?

A: No. Much of the mesas, canyons and moun­tains of Bears Ears are sa­cred to Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes, in­clud­ing the Navajo, Zuni, Ute Moun­tain and Hopi. Its ar­chae­o­log­i­cal trea­sures in­clude rock art, an­cient cliff dwellings and cer­e­mo­nial sites.

Grand Stair­case-Es­calante is one of the world’s premier sites for pa­le­on­to­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies. More than two dozen new species of di­nosaurs have been dis­cov­ered there in the 21 years since Clin­ton pre­served it as a na­tional mon­u­ment.

Fos­sils pre­served from the Late Cre­ta­ceous pe­riod, from 100 mil­lion to 66 mil­lion years ago, have given sci­en­tists an un­par­al­leled view of life on Earth in an era when the cli­mate was hot­ter, the air con­tained a lot more car­bon diox­ide and the sea level was ex­tremely high.

Q: Do the bound­ary changes jeop­ar­dize any of the re­search?

A: The So­ci­ety of Ver­te­brate Pa­le­on­tol­ogy, a non­par­ti­san group of sci­en­tists, says the re­moval of na­tional mon­u­ment pro­tec­tions is a se­ri­ous set­back.

“Trump’s claim that the new bound­aries pro­tect the re­sources named in the orig­i­nal procla­ma­tions is sim­ply un­true,” said P. David Polly, an In­di­ana Univer­sity pro­fes­sor who serves as the group’s pres­i­dent.

The shrink­ing of Bears Ears will cause sim­i­lar dam­age to pa­le­on­tol­ogy, he said.

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