Presidents of both parties have invoked their executive authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to provide safeguards for federal lands and waters. But some of these moves — including Barack Obama’s designation of the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in December and Bill Clinton’s 1996 declaration of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, both in Utah, have sparked fierce criticism from Republicans.
Members of Utah’s congressional delegation started lobbying Trump shortly after his November win to take unilateral action to undo the designation for Bears Ears, which they said should have been protected instead through legislation. While the White House has not yet indicated whether it would remove protections for the new monument, a White House official said in an email Monday that Trump was seeking to ensure the Antiquities Act has not been abused at times.
“Past administrations have overused this power and designated large swaths of land well beyond the areas in need of protection,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in advance of the formal announcement. “The Antiquities Act Executive Order directs the Department of the Interior to review prior monument designations and suggest legislative changes or modifications to the monument proclamations.”
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who traveled to Bears Ears last week to call yet again for a reversal of Obama’s designation, said in a speech on the Senate floor Monday that he had “been working closely with the Trump administration from day one to right the wrongs of previous administrations.”
“I was encouraged that—unlike his predecessor—President Trump actually took the time to listen and understand the heavy toll of such overreaching actions,” Hatch said. “In President Trump, we have a leader who is committed to defending the Western way of life. I am deeply grateful for his willingness to work with us to undo the harm caused by the overreach of his predecessors.”
A coalition of five tribes as well as environmentalists, archaeologists and outdoor industry groups lobbied Obama to put a large area in Utah’s San Juan County off-limits to development on the grounds that it boasted some of the nation’s best-preserved rock art and artifacts from ancient Pueblo civilization, which were being looted at times and damaged by motorized vehicle use and vandalism. At the time of last year’s announcement, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told reporters, “We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants, and a place of prayer and sacredness. These places — the rocks, the wind, the land — they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.”
John Wallin, acting executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, said in an interview Monday that the national monuments past presidents had declared have promoted tourism across the country while conveying stories about the nation’s cultural heritage.
“It’s pretty shocking that he thinks it’s a good use of the federal government’s time and resources,” Wallin said of Trump. “I’m hoping [Interior Secretary Ryan] Zinke can bring some Westerner’s common sense to the president, and let him know that places like Bears Ears and Gold Butte in Nevada have a well-documented history of being popular with Americans.”
Unlike the Bears Ears designation, which was done after then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell held a lengthy public hearing and a GOP bill that would have protected part of the area stalled in the House, Clinton’s move to declare Grand Staircase-Escalante a national monument took most people by surprise. That sparked an outcry at the time, though tourism in the area has increased as a result.
Any move by Trump to abolish a national monument designation could spark a serious legal battle. While Congress has wide latitude to change national monument designations, presidents rarely alter ones that are in place. In a few instances, presidents have modified the size of monuments established by their predecessors: Woodrow Wilson cut nearly half the acreage of Mount Olympus National Monument, which Theodore Roosevelt had established. But in 1938, the U.S. attorney general wrote a formal opinion saying the Antiquities Act authorized a president to establish a monument but did not grant a president the right to abolish one.
The upcoming executive order will likely lead to a shrinking of some monuments’ boundaries rather than their outright abolition, according to individuals briefed on the proposal, which could be easier to defend in court.
Speaking on the Senate floor Monday, Hatch emphasized, “Now Mr. President, I wish to be clear: in opposing the Bears Ears monument designation, I am in no way opposing the protection of lands that need to be protected. Indeed, there are many cultural sites in San Juan County that deserve special care, and I am committed to working with the president and with Congress to preserve these sacred sites.”
“These beautiful lands deserve protection but so, too, do the people of San Juan County,” he added.