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The president can make monuments — but he can’t take them away

Katahdin National Monument
Katahdin National Monument

Interior Secretary Zinke recommended to the White House last week that national monument lands protected by past presidents be removed from their protected status.

This move regarding monument designations is apparently a scheme to make way for oil and gas drilling and other destructive land uses that threaten the sacred lands, fragile archaeological sites and scientific values for which these national monuments were designated.

Early reports indicate that the administration hopes to slash protections on half a dozen of these areas, including major boundary changes that would leave large areas of public lands unprotected from the looting and profit-driven destruction that may threaten them. The only good news is that this sneak attack on the national treasures of our public lands appears doomed to fail.

{mosads}This is a breathtaking overreach by an administration that clearly doesn’t understand that a president’s powers are limited by the Constitution. Legal scholars correctly point out that the 1906 Antiquities Act, adopted when Theodore Roosevelt was president, gives the White House power to create National Monuments — but only Congress can alter or rescind them.


Should the president choose to adopt Zinke’s recommendations and attack any national monuments, conservation groups including Western Watersheds Project stand ready to seek justice in the courts.

In addition to being unlawful, Zinke’s recommendations plainly ignore the will of the majority. His recommendations follow a summer-long review process, during which the American public sent in more than 2.8 million comments on the proposal to gut protections of 27 national monuments. An overwhelming 99.2 percent of commenters demanded that the president keep his hands off these national treasures.

Instead of listening to the American public, Zinke seems to be taking his marching orders from a rogue’s gallery of anti-conservation and anti-regulation interests. This western good-old-boy network is spearheaded by the oil industry, front groups aligned with the Koch brothers to create the illusion of grassroots opposition, ranchers and far-right county commissioners, some of whom were jailed for leading illegal and destructive off-road vehicle rallies into sensitive, artifact-rich canyons.

It’s the same crowd that staged armed standoffs in Bunkerville, Nevada and at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge under the Bundy clan in an effort to get rid of federal oversight of western public lands that are so important to the American public, native wildlife and healthy ecosystem function.

With the push to privatize and eliminate western public lands stirring up a massive public backlash, anti-conservation politicians are taking a sly new tack by pursuing new laws and policies to weaken or eliminate environmental protections and turn over management of public lands and resources to state agencies that have cozy relationships with the drilling, mining, logging and livestock industries. 

Last week’s push to gut protections of national monuments is only a small part of an alarming larger scheme that would fast-track fossil fuel development, undermine sage grouse conservation plans, eliminate economic analyses of carbon impacts and roll back federal limits on methane emissions designed to blunt the impact of greenhouse gases on the changing climate.

The monuments have also brought new communities together in support of their preservation. It’s one of those unique moments in which indigenous tribes and local white communities find that they have common interests in history and culture that could be extinguished forever. 

Hunters and animal-rights advocates are starting to recognize that a common enemy threatens the native wildlife they both value. Both the recreation industry and those who avoid crowds of tourists find a common cause against the industrialization of prized public lands. In these attacks on the West, the Trump administration is uniting America in opposition to their senseless agenda of greed, waste and destruction. 

It’s clear that the only “traditional uses” that this administration wants to protect are those that are traditionally destructive, and that Zinke’s regard for what is traditional only goes back as far as mining, livestock and off-road vehicles began scarring the West. By contrast, national monuments like Bears Ears have cultural significance that reaches back for millenia. But the current administration appears deaf to the deeper histories the West can tell. 

Having kicked the hornet’s nest of America’s widely held environmental values with his national monument “review,” President Trump’s smartest move would be to put as much distance as possible between his policies and Zinke’s plan to weaken protections for these national treasures. Time will tell whether Trump will honor or undermine our national monuments, and their conservation legacy. 

Erik Molvar is executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a west-wide conservation group working to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife. He is also the author of 16 guidebooks to western public lands.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.
Tags Conservation Donald Trump Environment Erik Molvar national monuments
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