Sweeping wilderness vistas. Archaeological relics dating back thousands of years. Undersea worlds of corals, anemones and rare marine species.
Their fate could become clear this week when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke concludes his review of 27 national monuments from the South Pacific Ocean to off the coast of New England, as directed by an executive order that President Trump signed this spring. The order targeted designations of at least 100,000 acres that were made by former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Zinke later made an exception, also adding a smaller monument in northern Maine.
Trump is no fan of the act, declaring that it “does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it’s time that we ended this abusive practice.” But Interior’s review has come up against vehement pushback. The department received nearly 3 million public comments — with an overwhelming majority supporting the current designations, according to an analysis by the Center for Western Priorities.
Zinke recently announced, albeit with little explanation, that he would recommend no changes for six of the monuments on the list. Of the remaining sites, 15 are considered the most vulnerable to revision, reduction or even reversal. The secretary’s final guidance to the president could trigger both political and legal battles.
Basin and Range National Monument, which encompasses more than 703,000 acres in southeastern Nevada, was designated by Obama in July 2015. The desert expanse serves as a migration corridor for mule deer and pronghorn, as well as habitat for imperiled species, such as the sage grouse, hoary bat and flowering White River catseye. It is “an iconic American landscape,” according to the Bureau of Land Management, one that “preserves the legacies of 13,000 years of culture.”
That’s not how 17 members of the Congressional Western Caucus see it, however. In a letter to Zinke this summer, they wrote that the designation “was a personal favor to then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid” and should be cut to 2,500 acres — a decrease of more than 99 percent.
No national monument has been more in the political crosshairs since Trump took office than the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. Designated by Obama last December, it holds thousands of archaeological sites and areas of spiritual significance for Native Americans. “They are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection,” Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation explained at the time.
Zinke already has recommended that Trump revise the monument’s boundaries, a move supported by the governor and the state’s entire congressional delegation. But its backers have struck back. Patagonia launched its first-ever TV ad this summer, with founder Yvon Chouinard urging Westerners to lobby the secretary to protect Bears Ears and every other national monument.
“Zinke has said he believes in public lands,” Chouinard said. “Let’s hold him to it.”
A profusion of yellow, orange and purple wildflowers paints the rolling hills of Southern California’s Carrizo Plain every spring. “I’ve come, I’ve seen and I’ve succumbed to the spell of the valley,” Bruce Babbitt, then interior secretary, said after a visit in 1999.
Two years later, in one of his last acts in office, Clinton identified 204,100 acres as the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Traversed by the San Andreas Fault and framed by mountain ranges on the east and west, it includes the aptly named Soda Lake, a natural alkali wetland that turns white in the dry season.
Many local businesses and officials support the monument designation. Carrizo Plain is a “unique habitat and economic engine for tourism on the Central Coast,” Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) stressed in a statement last week. In a letter to Zinke, he noted that the monument remains vulnerable to potential energy development. Billions of gallons of oil and gas are believed to lie under those flowers and grassland.
The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southwestern Oregon was established by Clinton in June 2000 and expanded by Obama just before he left office in January. The Klamath, Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges intersect within the monument’s 100,000 acres, as do several distinct ecosystems. “Towering rock peaks covered in alpine forests rise above mixed woodlands, open glades, dense chaparral, meadows filled with stunning wildflowers, and swiftly-flowing streams,” Obama described when making his announcement.
Local ranchers and logging companies opposed both the original designation and the expansion, arguing that the protections made it more difficult to conduct commercial activities. The 2000 proclamation authorized the Bureau of Land Management to study the effects of livestock grazing on the area’s native species and natural features; eight years later, the agency concluded that this activity was having a negative impact.
Conservationists have spent more than $1 million buying out the ranchers’ federal permits, but the dispute remains unresolved.
The 297,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument, which Obama designated in southeastern Nevada last December, lies at the center of a controversy over rancher Cliven Bundy. Bundy and his family have long defied the federal government’s authority and refused to pay more than $1 million in fees and fines for grazing their cattle on public land. They engaged in an armed standoff in 2014 with Bureau of Land Management officials here; he and four sons are still in jail and facing charges.
Gold Butte features not only fossilized sand dunes and panels of petroglyphs but critical habitat for the threatened desert tortoise. Several other species thrive here, too, including desert bighorn sheep.
Zinke visited in late July but cut the visit short to attend a Cabinet meeting in Washington. Speaking to reporters outside Bundy’s home in Bunkerville, the secretary emphasized that monuments should be limited in scope. “They can’t be large tracts of public land or private land or state land,” he said.
Clinton created this 1.9 million-acre monument in 1996, surprising many Utahns and sparking resentments that have persisted for two decades. The designation, which was supported by not only liberal staffers in the administration but also the president’s conservative political consultant at the time, Dick Morris, marked the start of Clinton’s more ambitious strategy to invoke his authority under the Antiquities Act.
Bush’s first interior secretary, Gale Norton, conducted a review of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and others his predecessor had created, but she opted to make no changes. That decision still has significant local support: Many in the area, including the local Chamber of Commerce, back the monument because it has generated tourism.
Yet many ranchers relinquished their permits after the designation, complaining that federal officials’ management of the land made it difficult for them to operate. And there were other economic consequences, critics say. Clinton’s action blocked a coal mine proposed for the resource-rich area.
A gift of more than 87,500 acres from entrepreneur and conservationist Roxanne Quimby — a co-founder of Burt’s Bees — led to Obama’s designation last August of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in northern Maine. Quimby’s donation came with a $20 million endowment, plus a pledge to raise $20 million more.
Her philanthropy was not embraced by some local residents, state lawmakers or Gov. Paul LePage (R). LePage said the designation “demonstrates that rich, out-of-state liberals can force their unpopular agenda on the Maine people against their will.”
Still, the designation has already sparked more visits to the area. The monument lies along the pristine east branch of the Penobscot River and is home to lynx, bears, brook trout and moose. Lucas St. Clair, Quimby’s son, said Monday that “thousands” of cars have driven the monument’s loop road this summer, a tenfold increase. “People are showing up,” he said. “It’s really working.”
The 1.6-million-acre Mojave Trails National Monument was created in February 2016, one of three in California that Obama designated in a single day. Featuring lava flows, mountain ranges and sand dunes, it serves as a ecological bridge between Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve and contains the longest stretch of Route 66 that is still not developed.
Rep. Paul Cook (R-Calif.) represents the district where the monument is located east of Los Angeles. He outlined his plan for shrinking Mojave Trails in a June 8 letter to Zinke. He wants to allow mining claims there and to eliminate the southern portion, which includes private landholdings by firms such as Cadiz Inc. The company is hoping to build a 43-mile pipeline that would transport water from an aquifer underneath its property to Southern California.
Cadiz is represented by the lobbying firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt served as a lawyer and shareholder until taking up his current post.
When Obama created the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in September 2016, it became the first fully protected area off the East Coast. But the monument, which spans 4,913 square miles in the Atlantic Ocean, has come under a sustained assault from local fishing operators and industry.
Deep-diving marine mammals, such as beaked whales and sperm whales, live in its waters. It boasts undersea canyons and seamounts that are higher than any mountains east of the Rockies, rising as much as 7,700 feet from the ocean floor.
Lobstermen, fishermen and industry groups filed a lawsuit arguing that Obama exceeded his authority in designating the monument: The Pacific Legal Foundation’s Jonathan Wood, who represents the coalition, said it “threatens economic distress for individuals and families who make their living through fishing, and for New England communities that rely on a vibrant fishing industry.”
Both Democrats and Republicans agree that southern New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, designated by Obama in May 2014, is an area of historic, cultural and environmental significance. There are petroglyphs from three American Indian societies in its canyons, plus desert grasslands and a petrified forest.
Rep. Stevan Pearce (R-N.M.), who represents the 496,000-acre area, had sought to protect part of it through legislation but opposed any wilderness label. By contrast, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) had introduced a bill that called for a monument nearly 10 times bigger and featured wilderness protections.
Outdoors and recreation enthusiasts, including many veterans, rank among the monument’s frequent visitors. But the Northern New Mexico Stockmen’s Association, which includes Hispanic ranchers whose families have operated in the region for years, argue they have seen limits on their access to the Rio Grande since the monument was established.
Bush first designated the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in the central Pacific in 2009. In 2014, Obama announced he would expand it from almost 87,000 square miles to nearly 782,000 square miles — all of it adjacent to seven islands and atolls controlled by the United States. At the time, it marked the world’s largest protected marine reserve, and tuna fleet operators questioned whether it would affect their ability to catch fish.
“We’re talking about an area of ocean that’s nearly twice the size of Texas,” then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry said, “and that will be protected in perpetuity from commercial fishing and other resource-extraction activities, like deepwater mining.”
In August 2016, Obama more than quadrupled the size of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (pronounced “Papa-ha-now-moh-koo-ah-kay-ah”) to more than 582,578 square miles of land and sea in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Bush had officially created the monument in 2006, though a total of seven presidents — both Republican and Democrat, starting with Theodore Roosevelt a century earlier — had taken actions to protect the archipelago.
The area ranks as the planet’s largest seabird gathering place, with more than 14 million birds from 22 species, and is home to nearly all Laysan albatrosses and the remaining endangered Hawaiian monk seals. It is a mixed World Heritage Site — natural and cultural — as deemed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Fishermen’s associations have questioned the Obama expansion, though Congress appropriated funds to retire the fishing claims of less than a dozen operators after the original 2006 designation.
The area, which includes parts of the Angeles and San Bernardino national forests, accounts for 70 percent of Los Angeles County’s open space and provides more than one-third of its drinking water. Fifteen million people live within a 90-minute drive, making it one of the nation’s most accessible national monuments.
“For a lot of urban families, this is their only big outdoor space,” Obama said at the October 2014 designation ceremony, the mountains serving as his backdrop.
At the time, two San Bernardino County supervisors raised concerns about the monument. They argued that local officeholders had not been consulted as closely as those from other jurisdictions. While some opponents have come to embrace the designation since then, collaborating on shaping its management plan, others remain unconvinced.