In a rare but not unprecedented move, President Donald Trump significantly reduced the size of two national monument areas in Utah.
Surrounded by Utah’s entire congressional delegation, Gov. Gary Herbert, most of the state’s legislature, and U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke at a December 5, 2017 ceremony in Utah’s capitol in Salt Lake City, Trump signed proclamations significantly reducing the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Bears Ears National Monument.
Trump cut the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, established by President Bill Clinton in 1996, by approximately 800,000 acres, to just over 1,000,000 acres. Trump reduced the Bears Ears National Monument, declared by President Barack Obama at the end of his presidency, from 1.35 million acres to 201,876 acres.
Previous presidents have downsized national monuments on 18 occasions and modified the management of a number of other monuments.
Justice, Rule of Law
Trump said his decision to shrink the monument areas was a matter of being faithful to the letter of the law and of fairness to the people of Utah.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 allows presidents to designate federal lands at risk of damage as national monuments, without approval of Congress or the affected states. The law declares monument designations are to be limited to the “smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
On April 26, Trump issued an executive order directing Zinke to review all presidential monument designations or expansions of more than 100,000 acres since January 1, 1996, to ensure they were limited strictly to the smallest area necessary to care for the objects or features to be protected. At the time, Trump called the size and number of national monuments created by Obama “an egregious abuse of power.”
Trump also noted the two Utah monuments were created over the objections of Utah’s legislature, the governors at the respective times of creation, various county governments, and the state’s entire congressional delegation.
“I’ve spoken with many state and local leaders … who care very much about conserving land and are gravely concerned about this massive federal land grab,” Trump said. “[I]t never should have happened. I am signing this order to end abuses and return control to the people.”
Trump reinforced this theme upon signing the proclamations shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, saying, “Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington. And guess what? They’re wrong.”
Utah Delegation Thrilled
Utah’s senior U.S. senator, Orrin Hatch (R), praised Trump for considering the desires of the state’s residents.
“I’m thrilled and grateful to President Trump and Secretary Zinke for giving Utahns a voice in the protection of Utah lands,” Hatch said in statement. “The president’s proclamation represents a balanced solution and a win for everyone on all sides of this issue.
“It also represents a new beginning in the way national monuments are designated, paving the way for more local input and taking into account the actual letter and intent of the Antiquities Act, which calls for the ‘smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected,'” Hatch said.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) also commended Trump for upholding the law.
“I applaud President Trump for recognizing the limitations of the law,” said Bishop in a statement. “Americans of all political stripes should commend him for reversing prior administrations’ abuses of the Antiquities Act and instead exercising his powers within the scope of authority granted by Congress.”
‘Victory for Federalism’
Former North Dakota State Rep. Bette Grande, now a research fellow with The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News, says Trump’s action shows respect for federalism.
“There is winning, and then there is winning,” said Grande. “For Utah and the other Western states, President Trump’s rollback of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments is a significant victory for federalism since their creation was an abusive overreach of the federal government’s power, one that cannot be defended by federal law or common sense.
“President Trump’s action shows Western states are no longer the federal government’s playground,” Grande said. “Prudent and effective preservation of national treasures can and should be accomplished, but only while maintaining proper respect for private property rights and state sovereignty.”
Critical of Previous Presidents
R. J. Smith, a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, says the initial monument declarations were really an attempt by prior presidents to circumvent Congress and unilaterally establish de facto national parks.
“These designations really protected nothing, since the lands were already owned and managed by the federal government,” said Smith. “The goal of the designations had been to convert multiple-use public lands into de facto national parks and wilderness areas, preventing traditional uses such as recreation, grazing, and any other economic uses of natural resources.
“Prior presidents usurped the authority of Congress to designate parks and wildernesses, disenfranchised people in the affected states, and destroyed the economic well-being and tax base of much of rural America in the process,” Smith said. “I hope Trump continues to substantially downsize, or preferably eliminate, other national monuments.”
Speculation About Further Actions
In addition to the two Utah monuments Trump reduced on December 4, Zinke recommended shrinking the size or modifying the management of several additional monuments, according to a leaked memo obtained by The Washington Post in September 2017.
Zinke recommended cutting the size of Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou national monuments, two marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean, and amending management of 10 monuments to allow for various commercial activities previously allowed in these areas but now restricted, the Washington Post reported.
Trump has not said whether he will move forward with the other changes Zinke reportedly recommended.
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT): https://www.hatch.senate.gov/public/; https://www.hatch.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/email-orrin