Loss of federal protection risks presidents’ legacies
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.