Trump really will shrink government, starting with national monuments

Trump really will shrink government, starting with national monuments
© Josh Ewing

A lot has been said about this administration’s effort to undo everything that its predecessor did. Through that lens, today’s announcement that the White House would trim Bears Ears national monument from 1.4-million-acres to 220,000 acres, or 84 percent, may seem just another notch on the bedpost of a president dead-set on remaking the United States in a different image. 

Viewed through a different lens, though, it’s a pretty remarkable move. Every White House — especially over the last 30 years or so, has worked to expand the power of the Executive Branch. But today’s action seems more likely to restrict that power, giving it back to locals and their representatives in government. 

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When President Obama declared Bears Ears a national monument in the waning days of his administration, it’ didn’t come as much of a surprise. National monuments are a lot like national parks, but they differ in one very important aspect — the president can create a national monument with nothing more than the stroke of a pen. A small handful of very loud, very aggressive environmental groups and tribal interests had long been lobbying for just this designation, and they were thrilled at the breathtaking scope of the designation — more than 1.3 million acres.

 

Locals, though, weren’t so thrilled. Elected officials from Gov. Gary Herbert to Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeUtah group complains Mia Love should face criminal penalties for improper fundraising Senate approves 4B spending bill Overnight Health Care: Opioid legislation passes overwhelmingly | DOJ backs Cigna-Express Scripts merger | Senate passes ban on pharmacy gag clauses MORE and Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopLand and Water Conservation Fund is good for business Trump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Looking to the historic leasing program to alleviate the maintenance backlog in national parks MORE — who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources — had been working for years to broker an agreement that would protect and preserve the culturally significant areas while allowing much-needed access and use to locals who depend on the land for their livelihoods and their way to life. 

Then, with nearly no notice and without so much as a nod toward soliciting input, the Obama administration intervened and created a political maelstrom. With nothing more than a proclamation, all that work to build consensus and foster cooperation found itself swept into the dustbin of history. The narrative became entirely political.

With today’s pronouncement, the current administration made a strong statement — although the law may give presidents the right to unilaterally make such decisions without so much as consulting those who have a stake in them, maybe presidents ought to be more judicious with that power. 

Obviously, the people who depend on public lands — which make up nearly 90 percent of some of Utah’s counties — are better off today than they were before this move. But it really doesn’t solve the fundamental problem, in fact, it calls much more attention to it. 

Just about every decision made about public lands is the result of a legally mandated process of assessment, evaluation and public comment. Though sometimes we all disagree with the outcomes that process delivers, having a process in place is critical. It’s important because it helps ensure that the public lands are protected for future generations, and it’s important because the process establishes clear rules of the road, providing certainty to those who use public lands.

National monuments, though, aren’t the result of a process. The Antiquities Act — a century-old piece of legislation originally intended to help the government protect archeological sites from looters — gives the president the sole authority to create these monuments. There’s no process, no study of the impact on the environment, no public comment and no analysis of how it will affect locals, just a signature. 

That’s a power that the president — regardless of party — just shouldn’t have.

To be sure, today’s announcement eases the burdens placed on local ranchers and their communities. But if we don’t fix the process, it may only be a temporary reprieve. There’s nothing to stop the next president from reinstating the Bears Ears monument to its former boundaries. For that matter, there’s nothing to stop any future president from creating or eradicating a national monument on any piece of public land. 

Bishop has proposed a bill that would create a process for national monument designations. National Monument Creation and Protection Act would set clear guidelines on the size and scope of these monuments, ensure that local voices are heard in the process and require environmental impact studies — just like every other action on public lands. 

These are changes we need badly. People out West are Americans just like everyone else, and presidents shouldn’t be allowed to rule them by fiat. That’s a principle we should all be able to agree upon.

Ethan L. Lane is the executive director of the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association Federal Lands.