Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Tuesday called on President Trump to shrink a total of four national monuments and change the way six other land and marine sites are managed, a sweeping overhaul of how protected areas are maintained in the United States.
Zinke’s final report comes a day after Trump signed proclamations in Utah that downsized two massive national monuments there — Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by nearly 46 percent. The president had directed Zinke in April to review 27 national monuments established since 1996 under the Antiquities Act, which gives the president broad authority to safeguard federal lands and waters under threat.
In addition to the Utah sites, Zinke supports cutting Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou, though the exact reductions are still being determined. He also would revise the proclamations for those and the others to clarify that certain activities are allowed.
The additional monuments affected include Northeast Canyons and Seamounts in the Atlantic Ocean; both Rose Atoll and the Pacific Remote Islands in the Pacific Ocean; New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande Del Norte, and Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters.
“The Antiquities Act over time has done great things for our country, and it has protected some of our greatest treasures,” he said in a call with reporters. But its power had been “abused,” he said, with monument designations extending far beyond the objects they were designed to protect.
Some of the objects defined in past proclamations, he noted, were too abstract: “Stars, biological diversity, remoteness, emptiness.”
Zinke criticized the federal government’s past action halting motorized vehicle traffic in Cascade-Siskiyou until a transportation plan could be finalized, saying it interfered with local cross-country ski operators’ ability to maintain trails.
For several sites, Zinke recommended amending the monuments’ proclamation language to ensure activities such as grazing, hunting and fishing can continue. While these practices often go on even after a presidential designation, Zinke said he wants to make that legality clear because ranchers have felt marginalized and fear they will face future restrictions.
In the case of New Mexico’s national monuments, Zinke said, he listened to the state’s two Democratic senators and others in deciding not to modify their boundaries. Still, he wanted “to make sure that the proclamation protects the long-standing grazing [in parts] of those monuments” and that management of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks does not interfere with U.S. Customs and Border Protection operations in the area.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) wasn’t buying the explanation. He blasted Zinke in a statement, saying the “report is based on hearsay and erroneous data”, and the secretary and Trump “have turned a deaf ear to the overwhelming consensus to protect New Mexico’s conservation legacy.”
The administration is already facing multiple lawsuits over the president’s decision Monday to scale back both Bears Ears, a sacred tribal site designated last year by former president Barack Obama, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, a reservoir of prehistoric fossils Bill Clinton established in 1996.
More litigation could be coming. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said to Zinke in a letter in July that the state was “ready to take appropriate legal action” if Trump rescinds or reduces the size of Cascade-Siskiyou.
Interior received more than 2.5 million comments on the review, and they “overwhelmingly” said all of the monuments should remain unchanged, Zinke wrote in his report. But he attributed the extreme tilt to “a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple groups.”
“I don’t yield to public pressure,” Zinke said Tuesday. “Sound public policy is not based on threats of lawsuit. It’s doing what’s right.”
The final document is almost identical to the draft Zinke submitted to the White House this summer, and much of the language is vague. For example, it appears to open the door to commercial fishing in three marine monuments where this practice is either being phased out or is already banned. Yet the report calls for amending the sites’ proclamations to allow regional councils “to make fishery-management decisions as authorized by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.”
“That’s something that our members have argued for from the beginning,” said Bob Vanasse, who serves as executive director for the commercial fishing industry group Saving Seafood. The act, he added, is broadly viewed as “one of the best laws in the world” in terms of sustainability.
But Tom Wathen, a vice president at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which works on environmental and other issues, said in an email that commercial fishing within the marine monuments “would undermine the protection provided for these habitats and for the threatened whales, turtles, fish and seabirds that gather there.”
In the report, Zinke also finalized his recommendations to create three new national monuments: at Kentucky’s Camp Nelson, a Civil War training site for African American soldiers; at the home of Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist who was assassinated by a white supremacist, in Jackson, Miss., and at the Badger-Two Medicine area in Zinke’s home state of Montana.
The secretary said he was “fairly confident” Trump would accept all of his recommendations, and he intends to brief him “multiple times” in coming weeks to get his sign-off. Zinke also rejected the idea that any of these alterations of existing monuments would amount to relinquishing control of federal land, describing such criticism as “nefarious, false and a lie.”
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) commended Zinke on Tuesday for “actually listening to the people on the local level” and Trump for showing “some real courage against well-funded litigation machines.”
Bishop and members of the Utah congressional delegation have introduced legislation that would create a new national park out of a portion of Grand Staircase-Escalante, to be called Escalante Canyons National Park.
“I know other people say this, but I’m telling you: Dude, there’s nothing quite like Utah,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R), the bill’s lead sponsor. “Utah is an extraordinary state when it comes to natural beauty. We want to share that with as many people as we can.”
Zinke said “Interior would be supportive” of establishing a national park along the lines of Stewart’s bill.
Sharon Buccino, who directs the land and wildlife program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, said in a statement that “Zinke’s report, like yesterday’s outrageous and illegal actions by his boss, makes it crystal clear: the Trump administration is waging a war on our treasured national monuments — by land, sea and air.”
Buccino called Stewart’s bill “part and parcel of the same attack.”
Dino Grandoni contributed to this report.