BOZEMAN, Montana — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended Thursday that President Donald Trump weaken protections for a number of national monuments, but he also opted to keep secret specific details about the proposed changes.
Zinke told The Associated Press he is not asking for any monuments to be eliminated. Some, however, appear headed for drastic reductions.
In April, Trump sparked outrage when he signed a pair of executive orders threatening 27 national monuments — most famously, the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah. Those orders tasked the departments of Interior and Commerce with reviewing recent land and marine national monuments designated or expanded under the Antiquities Act, which was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.
Bears Ears — named after a pair of buttes and home to thousands of Native American archaeological and cultural sites —could be reduced by 88 percent, to just 160,000 acres, The New York Times reported Friday, citing people familiar with the report.
Zinke submitted his monuments review to the White House on Thursday, though the full report has not been made public. The White House told HuffPost the report won’t be made available until a draft is finalized in the coming weeks.
“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,” Zinke said in a statement.
Zinke did not specify any monuments in the 1,045-word summary that was released; however, The Washington Post reported that the recommendation calls for shrinking at least three monuments, including Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, also in Utah, and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. And the New York Times reported at least four monuments are on the chopping block.
The report summary criticized the use of the Antiquities Act to preserve natural habitats and the historic sites such as World War II weapons testing grounds.
“While early monument designations focused more on geological formations, archaeological ruins, and areas of historical interest, a more recent and broad interpretation of what constitutes an ‘object of historic or scientific interest’ has been extended to include landscape areas, biodiversity, and view sheds,” Zinke wrote in the summary. “Moreover, features such as World War II desert bombing craters and remoteness have been included in justifying proclamations.”
The briefing acknowledged that the vast majority of the 2.4 million public comments received by the Interior Department favored maintaining the current size of all monuments, demonstrating what the agency called “a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations.”
In an interview with AP in his home state of Montana — where he is traveling for an on-site briefing about ongoing wildfires — Zinke did not disclose specific boundary changes and dismissed the idea that the administration is looking to sell off America’s public lands.
“I’ve heard this narrative that somehow the land is going to be sold or transferred,” Zinke told AP. “That narrative is patently false and shameful. The land was public before and it will be public after.”
In June, Zinke recommended Trump shrink Bears Ears’ boundaries. Instead of the large area designated by former President Barack Obama, “it would have been more appropriate to identify and separate the areas that have significant objects to be protected,” Zinke wrote in June.
At the time, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — a group of five Native American tribes that came together to petition for monument status — condemned Zinke’s recommendation as a “slap in the face to the members of our Tribes and an affront to Indian people all across the country.”
In a statement Thursday, Shaun Chapoose, a coalition leader and member of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee, said the tribes are ”firm in our dedication to protect” the monument.
“We had hoped that Secretary Zinke would listen to tribal voices and preserve Bears Ears National Monument,” he said. “Instead, he has chosen a fight, and we have no choice but to continue the fight for our ancestors and for contemporary uses of the lands by our Tribal members.”
In a call with reporters Thursday, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said a “few” recent presidents have abused the Antiquities Act and it must be restored to its original purpose. The review, he said, is not about pushing energy development.
“The truth is the debate is about the process and the rule of law,” he said. “It’s about how we protect our resources, not if we protect them.”
Zinke also previously announced he would recommend no changes be made to six national monuments: Idaho’s Craters of the Moon, Washington’s Hanford Reach, Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients, Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks, Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument and California’s Sand to Snow.
Kate Kelly, public lands director at the Center for American Progress and a former senior adviser under Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, said in a statement Thursday that while the recommendations remain vague, “what’s clear is this action would be un-American, illegal and wrong.”
“Last week, the President was siding with white supremacists to prop up Confederate monuments and this week Secretary Zinke is presumably taking aim at national monuments that protect Native American sacred sites,” she said. “As this recommendation heads to the White House, some of the President’s advisors are surely wishing they could just stick the recommendations in the trash can and forget the President ever asked for them.”
Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said Thursday’s recommendations “cement [Zinke’s] legacy as the most anti-park Interior Secretary in history.”
“If President Trump takes any action to erase national monument acreage, he will trigger a court battle that will drag on for years. Clearly the outcome of this review was rigged from the beginning, otherwise the Trump administration would have listened to the 2.7 million Americans who told them to leave our parks the way they are.”
Several legal scholars have concluded Congress, not the president, has the sole legal power to abolish, shrink or otherwise weaken national monuments.
In his report summary, Zinke noted that past presidents have modified the size of monuments 18 times and said Trump was “correct” in ordering him to review the designations.
“This is far from the first time an examination of scope of monuments has been conducted,” he wrote. ”[T]here is no doubt that President Trump has the authority to review and consider recommendations to modify or add a monument.”
The interior secretary visited just eight monuments as part of his sweeping review, including taking a virtual tour of Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.
“Secretary Zinke promised a rigorous analysis of national monuments, but what the American public got was a sham review and a foreign vacation,” Greg Zimmerman, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement last week, referring to Zinke and his wife’s recent trip to the Mediterranean. “If he bothered to listen, Secretary Zinke would have found that national monuments are cornerstones of Western economies, that they protect exceptional and unique lands, and, most of all, that virtually no Americans support eliminating national monuments.”
Sixteen presidents have used the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate 157 monuments; however, no president has ever tried to roll back a designation.
Zinke insisted early on that “there is no predetermined outcome on any monument.” His and Trump’s actions and comments, however, suggested otherwise. As the president laid out in his remarks during an April 26 signing ceremony, he’s looking to end “another egregious abuse of federal power,” put “states back in charge” and open up now-protected areas to “tremendously positive things.” That same month, Zinke said the Antiquities Act has “become a tool of political advocacy rather than public interest.”
The administration’s claims about the Antiquities Act being abused appear unfounded. An April press release from the Interior Department stated: “Since the 1900s, when the [Antiquities] Act was first used, the average size of national monuments exploded from an average of 422 acres per monument. Now it’s not uncommon for a monument to be more than a million acres.”
The Interior Department did not respond to HuffPost’s requests seeking clarification on the 422-acre figure, which appears to be cherry-picked. In 1908, two years after the Antiquities Act became law, Roosevelt — of whom Zinke is an “unapologetic admirer and disciple” — designated more than 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon as a national monument. Only a few Obama-era land monuments are larger. Roosevelt also designated the 20,629-acre Chaco Canyon National Monument and the 610,000-acre Mount Olympus National Monument.
Republican presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover both designated monuments of over a million acres. Coolidge set aside Alaska’s Glacier Bay in 1925, and Hoover set aside California’s Death Valley in 1933.
This story has been updated with information from the release of the report summary.