Zinke under fire from public lands advocates

Zinke under fire from public lands advocates
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As the Trump administration's review of national monument designations reaches a close, Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInterior Dept recommends reducing Bears Ears, other protected land: report Give tribes real authority in Bears Ears National Monument Trump moving toward energy exploration in Arctic wildlife refuge: report MORE is facing more heat than ever from conservationists and outdoor groups.

Opponents of the review say it could close off America's natural treasures to the public, and have poured more than $2 million into ads targeting Zinke, urging him not to rescind large national monuments established under the last three presidents.

But industry officials and conservatives want Zinke to loosen the federal government's grip on huge swaths of acreage around the country, and propose reforms to the monuments law. 

“We're all-hands-on-deck on monuments right now,” said Aaron Weiss, a spokesman for the Center for Western Priorities.

“Clearly across the conservation world, recognizing this is completely unprecedented, I think that’s part of the reason why you’ve seen the scale of the response you’re seeing, he said.

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Zinke began his review in April when President Trump ordered the Interior Department to reconsider 27 large monument designations since 1996. The review is part of an administration-wide effort to boost energy production and expand American industries, and Zinke is due to finalize his recommendations and send them to the White House by Thursday.

Presidents have shrunk monuments in the past, but never rescinded one. And the power to reduce a monument has never been challenged in court, something conservationists are promising should Trump take action.

 

The effort has kicked up a firestorm of criticism.

Weiss’s group is one of several to launch advertising campaigns slamming the review and urging Zinke to maintain the monuments. Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the League of Conservation Voters and the Western Values Project are also on the air, nationally and in the West, advertising against the review process.

The campaign is designed to pressure Zinke in areas where both monuments are popular, and Zinke, a former Montana Congressman, has his roots.

“This review puts at risk our most precious and valued outdoor areas,” said Jayson O’Neill, the deputy director of the Western Values Project

“As Montanans know, we rely on those public lands for most of our recreation activities. … Those are areas where we get out and get an opportunity to get away.”

The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

The ad blitz is only one facet of conservationists’ opposition to the review.

Western Values Project is also seeking information from the Trump administration about the criteria it has used for its monument assessments and the sources officials have consulted as part of the process. Groups are also lining up legal experts who question whether the Antiquities Act gives the president the power to resize a monument.

Zinke also faces lobbying by the outdoor industry, with The Outdoor Industry Association — a group that represents retailers such as REI and The North Face — sending a letter to Zinke just this week asking that he preserve monuments.

The Interior had has been slowly unveiling his recommendations for some of the 27 monuments on the list. In July Zinke recommended shrinking the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah — a controversial 1.3 million-acre landscape designated by the Obama administration in December that protects Native American antiquities — which opponents consider an excessive abuse of the Antiquities Act.

Zinke has said he won’t recommend changes to at least six other monument sites.

Industry groups and conservatives see the review as a chance to both rein in past monument designations they consider egregious, and reform the underlying Antiquities Act law.

Ethan Lane, the executive director of the Public Lands Council, a ranching group, said monument designations have impinged on ranchers’ land use rights in the West, and Zinke’s review provides the chance to correct some of that.

“We’re not opposed to protection of items that need protection,” he said. “We’re supportive of that. What our hope was is that they would focus on those areas where the Antiquities Act has been used to lock off much larger landscapes.”

Oil and natural gas producers have also been watching the review closely, though not necessarily because there are drilling opportunities in the monuments subject to the review, said Kathleen Sgamma, the president of the Western Energy Alliance industry group.

But Sgamma said the administration should work with Congress to rewrite monuments laws so future designations are more narrow and follow the Antiquities Act requirement that they protect “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

“We have plenty of ways to protect natural resources on federal lands, and we don’t need these huge monument designations that really affect the livelihoods of local communities,” she said.

Lawmakers are expected to review Zinke’s suggestions and propose legislative rewrites later this year.

Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopHouse Natural Resources chairman pledges to retire after next term Trump's monument plan still shrouded in secrecy Greens threaten lawsuit over potential monument reductions MORE (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and a critic of President Obama’s use of the law, has promised to introduce a bill after the review is finished. He has said the Antiquities Act “was created with noble intent and for limited purposes, but has been hijacked to set aside increasingly large and restricted areas of land without public input.”

Public lands advocates say they hope to discourage the Trump administration from both shrinking monuments and overhauling the underlying law, but they’re gearing up for a fight either way.

“The strategy is to make it clear to the secretary, to the White House, to others in the Department of Interior that attempting to erase or shrink national monuments is incredibly unpopular,” Weiss said. “It would be politically foolish for the secretary to do this.”

- This report was updated on August 20 at 10:11 a.m.