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Trump National Monuments

Trump might return some federal lands back to the states to boost economic growth


Updated August 25, 2017 10:27 AM EDT

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended that President Trump shrink the designations for at least three national monuments.

Zinke recommended scaling back the size of Utah's Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments along with Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, according to the Washington Post.

A White House official told the Post that Trump had received the report, but would not confirm when it would be released to the public or when the president would take action on Zinke's recommendations.

Environmentalists and Native American tribes who lobbied for the creation of the Bears Ears monument have said they will fight the Trump administration in court over the monument reductions.

The Utah monuments both cover vast swathes of land that the oil and gas industries have been eyeing and some Oregan lumber companies have sued the federal government over the expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou monument.

Updated August 25, 2017 10:27 AM EDT

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Thursday announced he had sent a draft report to President Trump detailing his findings and recommendations on his monuments review, however those recommendations were not included in a summary of the report released to the public.

“No President should use the authority under the Antiquities Act to restrict public access, prevent hunting and fishing, burden private land, or eliminate traditional land uses, unless such action is needed to protect the object,” Zinke said in a statement. “The recommendations I sent to the president on national monuments will maintain federal ownership of all federal land and protect the land under federal environmental regulations, and also provide a much needed change for the local communities who border and rely on these lands for hunting and fishing, economic development, traditional uses, and recreation.”

Under the 1906 Antiquities Act, Presidents have been able to set aside land to preserve items of historical or archeological significance such as unique rock formations or Native American tribal artworks.

In a summary of the report, Zinke wrote that the review found past President's adherence to the Antiquities Act's "definition of an 'object' and 'smallest area compatible' clause on some monuments were either arbitrary or likely politically motivated or boundaries could not be supported by science or reasons of practical resource management."

Zinke wrote that "despite the apparent lack of adherence to the purpose of the Act," some of the monuments have been largely settled and are supported by the local communities.

"Other monuments remain controversial and contain significant private property within the identified external boundary or overlap with other Federal land designations such as national forests, Wilderness Study Areas, and land specifically set aside by Congress for timber production," Zinke wrote. He did not specify which monuments he considers to be controversial.

Zinke added that the majority of comments the Department received regarding the review were "overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments and demonstrated a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations."

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is expected to announce the results of his review of several national monuments on Thursday. Conservationists are worried he will recommend drastically shrinking or even rescinding some of the designations, but critics of the monuments are hoping the Trump administration will return the federal lands back to the states to tap in to their economic potential.

Past presidents including Presidents Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have used the Antiquities Act of 1906, first used under President Teddy Roosevelt, to protect land or historical or archeological significance.

Earlier this year President Trump signed an executive ordered directing Zinke to review national monuments designated since 1996 to determine whether or not they should retain their current designation. Zinke has already announced he won't recommend any changes for four of the monuments, but others like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in southern Utah could be on the chopping block.

Previous presidents including Woodrow Wilson and Howard Taft have scaled back the size of some monuments, but no president has every completely rescinded a designation. Some experts worry that Trump would create a troubling precedent by doing so.

"It could have huge ramifications for other national monuments across the country," said Kate Kelly, director of public lands at the Center for American Progress.

"It sets a precedent that any president based on their political will could change a monument and upend businesses and communities that rely on it," she said.

Opponents of the monuments say the Antiquities Act has become a land grabbing tool of the federal government, and say states and local governments should be the stewards of those lands.

"Nearly a third of the country is owned by the federal government," said Nick Loris, an economist with the Heritage Foundation who specialized in energy and environmental regulatory issue.

"I don't necessarily think it's such a bad idea that we place more land in the control of states, county commissioners, private ownership who have an inherent responsibility and an inherent incentive to protect this land from an environmental standpoint, but also to reap the economic benefits whether it's grazing or oil," Loris said.

Environmental groups and Native American tribes who lobbied for some of the designations have vowed to challenge any changes to the monuments designations in court.

Loris argued that changing the designations doesn't automatically mean that America's wilderness wont be protected.

"It doesn't necessarily mean that we're going to be drilling in Yosemite," he said. "We still have our national parks and they're going to be preserved."

Loris said the decision making would simply return to state and local officials who could decide how to balance preserving nature and antiquities with developing the land for its economic value.

However, monument supports say the review isn't motivated by a battle over states rights but more so by money from special interest groups. According to a study by the Center for American Progress and Conservation Science Partners,
both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante cover large oil and natural gas reserves.

Monument supports also note that Utah lawmakers and President Trump have received sizable political contributions from the oil and gas industries.

Earlier this year, the American Petroleum Institute sent a letter to House Natural Resource Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) -- who has received over $44,000 in donations from the oil and gas industry so far in the 2018 campaign cycle -- urging the committee to "re-examine the role and purpose of the Antiquities Act."

Kelly said it's not much of a stretch to conclude that there are other motivations driving the monuments review.

"We are concerned that the review is really politically motivated, that this is about pandering to a select few politicians or certain members of the Trump administration’s base rather than the merits of the national monuments themselves," she said.

Zinke has said the Interior Department has received over 1.2 million public comments on the Regulations.gov website regarding the monuments review and thousands more in the mail.

One of those letters came from API. In July they wrote that the monuments "hold an abundance of oil and natural gas resources. Laws, regulations and policies that allow access to federal lands for the responsible development of these energy resources will benefit American families, consumers and businesses with secure sources of affordable energy, hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues to the federal treasury, and increased energy security in a challenging world."

While those that support the change in designations say opening the land up for states to develop could create jobs and boost the economy opponents argue that influx of revenue is only a short term gain and that the money generated from tourism to federal lands is better for the local economy in the long run.

"If these monuments are closed we expect there to be real and immediate pain for many communities across the west. National monuments are huge economic drivers for local businesses through tourism, through outdoor recreation, they bring a lot of visitors to the area," Kelly said.

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