Ryan Zinke's Monuments Plan: Happy 101st Birthday, National Parks!

The sandstone buttes of the Valley of the Gods are prized by hikers, tribes and other defenders of Bears Ears National Monument.
The sandstone buttes of the Valley of the Gods are prized by hikers, tribes and other defenders of Bears Ears National Monument. Photo by Josh Ewing/bearsearscoalition.org
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke hasn't yet revealed the finalized details of the Trump administration's plan to halt the pernicious spread of national monuments across the West. News outlets are reporting that, while it doesn't appear that any of the monuments will actually be abolished, as many as four of the 27 monuments under review may be targeted for a reduction in area  — particularly Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, a 1.35-million acre refuge designated by Barack Obama that could be shrunk to barely a tenth of its current size.

The attempted rollback has many environmental groups, Native American tribes, recreationalists and other defenders of open space sputtering with outrage and denouncing the review process as "rigged." As we reported last week, Zinke's review featured visits to only eight of the 27 properties on his hit list and canceled meetings with stakeholders. But a more basic question about the whole process, which has evidently been designed as a gesture of support for sagebrush rebels hollering about federal land grabs, is still looming: Is any of what Zinke is proposing even legal?

A range of public-lands experts from across the political spectrum don't seem to think so. Check out, for example, this letter signed by 121 law professors "with expertise in environmental, natural resources, and administrative law," which asserts that the Trump camp seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of the 1906 Antiquities Act, the law invoked by Obama, Bill Clinton and others to establish the monuments now under attack. While the president has the power to designate monuments, he or she may not have the authority to revoke them or diminish them; that privilege seems to lie with Congress.

Details, details. Petty considerations, such as whether he actually has the power to do something, hasn't given Trump pause before, whether he's trying to manage federal lands or ban Muslims. Look for protracted legal battles to follow. While some enviros fired off statements to the press attacking Zinke for celebrating the 101st anniversary of the National Park Service on August 25, the same day that he's planning to trim the inventory, the response from others was more blunt. "We're going to sue their asses if they try anything," one communications director for an environmental law policy group announced in an email blast.
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast