WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday directing his interior secretary to review the designation of dozens of national monuments on federal lands, calling the protection efforts “a massive federal land grab” by previous administrations.
It was yet another executive action from a president trying to rack up accomplishments before his first 100 days in office, with Saturday marking that milestone. And it could upend protections put in place in Utah and other states under a 1906 law that authorizes the president to declare federal lands as monuments and restrict their use.
During a signing ceremony at the Interior Department, Trump said the order would end “another egregious abuse of federal power” and “give that power back to the states and to the people where it belongs.”
Trump accused the Obama administration of using the Antiquities Act to “unilaterally put millions of acres of land and water under strict federal control” — a practice Trump derided as “a massive federal land grab.”
“Somewhere along the way the Act has become a tool of political advocacy rather than public interest,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said. “And it’s easy to see why designations in some cases are viewed negatively by those local communities that are impacted the most.”
In December, shortly before leaving office, President Barack Obama infuriated Utah Republicans by creating the Bears Ears National Monument on more than 1 million acres of land that’s sacred to Native Americans and home to tens of thousands of archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings.
Republicans in the state asked Trump to take the unusual step of reversing Obama’s decision. They said the designation will stymie growth by closing the area to new commercial and energy development. The Antiquities Act does not give the president explicit power to undo a designation and no president has ever taken such a step.
Trump’s order was one of a handful he intended to sign this week in a flurry of developments before his 100th day in office. The president has used executive orders aggressively over the past three months; as a candidate, Trump railed against Obama’s use of this power.
Wednesday’s order will cover several dozen monuments across the country designated since 1996. They total 100,000 acres or more and include the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bear Ears, both in Utah.
Zinke was directed to produce an interim report in 45 days and make a recommendation on Bears Ears, and then issue a final report within 120 days.
Zinke said that over the past 20 years, the designation of tens of millions of acres as national monuments have limited the lands’ use for farming, timber harvesting, mining and oil and gas exploration, and other commercial purposes.
While designations have done “a great service to the public,” Zinke said the “local community affected should have a voice.”
Some, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have hailed the order as the end of “land grabs” by presidents dating to Bill Clinton.
But Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said that if Trump truly wants to make America great again, he should use the law to protect and conserve America’s public lands. In New Mexico, Obama’s designation of Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument have preserved important lands while boosting the economy, Heinrich said, and that story has repeated across the country.
“If this sweeping review is an excuse to cut out the public and scale back protections, I think this president is going to find a very resistant public,” Heinrich said.
Members of a coalition of five Western tribes that pushed for the Bears Ears National Monument said they’re outraged the administration will review a decision they say was already carefully vetted by the Obama administration, including a multi-day visit last summer by then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Davis Filfred, the Navajo Nation representative on the coalition, said it would be heart-breaking if the review leads to an attempt to strip the monument of designation.
“Once it’s designated, it’s designated. He should just honor our past leaders and those who were before him,” Filfred said. “He’s disregarding the Native Americans, the first people of this nation. This is sacred land.”
Filfred said he and the coalition won’t stand by idly if Zinke tries to undo the designation. “He’s going to be in for a fight. We’re not going to let this down easy.”
Order Sets Up Legal Showdown with Vast Lands at Stake
President Donald Trump’s order for the government to review national monuments created by three of his predecessors sets up a potential legal showdown over whether one chief executive has the power to undo another’s decisions. At stake are federal lands revered for their natural beauty and historical significance.
The review goes well beyond a few declarations made in the waning months of Barack Obama’s term. It covers 24 monuments established by three former presidents over more than two decades. A closer look at the issues:
WHAT IS A NATIONAL MONUMENT?
The 1908 Antiquities Act, enacted under President Theodore Roosevelt, empowers the president to declare as national monuments any landmarks, structures and other “objects of historic or scientific interest” on land owned or controlled by the federal government. Roosevelt established 18 monuments, including the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Most presidents since then have designated additional monuments. Congress has created others.
Most monuments are overseen by the National Park Service. Some are cared for by the federal Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service or the Forest Service. Each agency has policies for protecting the land while also allowing some public use. For instance, some policies include limits on mining, timber cutting and recreational activities such as riding off-road vehicles.
A CONTENTIOUS HISTORY
Many national monument proclamations have enjoyed broad support. Others have been fiercely contested in Congress and the courts, including designations by Franklin D. Roosevelt (Jackson Hole National Monument, now Grand Teton National Park); Jimmy Carter (vast lands in Alaska); and George W. Bush (Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument northwest of Hawaii).
Trump’s choice of Jan. 1, 1996, as the starting date for his review was prompted by lingering resentment among Utah conservatives of Bill Clinton’s designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that year.
Critics say presidents increasingly are protecting areas that are too large and do not fit the law’s original purpose of shielding particular historical or archaeological sites. Designating millions of acres for scientific observation or sheltering rare species, they contend, is a “federal land grab” that ignores the wishes of local residents, although the lands already belonged to the government or were under federal control.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says the pendulum has swung too far toward protecting public lands and away from the “multiple-use” concept advanced by Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service and an early leader in the conservation movement.
Supporters say the designations are essential to protect sensitive areas from looting and damage. Complaints about people getting kicked off the land are exaggerated, they say, and opposition fades as nearby communities benefit from tourism the monuments attract. A 2014 study by the nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics found that indicators such as employment, population and per-capita income held steady or improved in sections of the West where monuments larger than 10,000 acres had been established since 1981.
Some monuments have been reduced in size over the years, either by presidential order or by Congress, while others have been enlarged. But no president has tried to eliminate a predecessor’s monument. If Trump does so, his move will almost certainly be challenged in court.
The Antiquities Act does not explicitly say whether a president can nullify a monument proclamation. A legal analysis commissioned by the National Parks Conservation Association says no, pointing to a 1938 opinion by then-Attorney General Homer Cummings that a monument designation has the force of law and can be reversed only by Congress. A House report accompanying the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 agrees.
But a study for the conservative American Enterprise Institute released in March argues that when Congress authorizes the executive branch to write regulations, the power to repeal them generally can be assumed. That’s especially so, it says, when a president is correcting a predecessor’s act that exceeded what a law intended — such as creating vast monuments when the Antiquities Act says they should consist of “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
Trump’s order directs Zinke to review monument designations involving 100,000 acres or more. The interior secretary will submit an interim report within 45 days focusing on the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which Obama established last year. A final report is due in 120 days.
Zinke says the report will recommend whether any monuments should be abolished or resized. He promises an open-minded approach and says he remains opposed to selling any federal land or transferring it to state or local control.
Congress might weigh in as well. Numerous bills on the issue were introduced in the previous session, including measures to prevent the president from establishing or expanding monuments in particular states and to require consent of Congress or state legislatures.
President Donald Trump’s order to review national monuments covers 24 monuments established by three former presidents over more than two decades. A list of the monuments, their location and the year of their creation:
Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Pacific Ocean, 2006 and expanded in 2016.
Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, Pacific Ocean, 2009.
Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, Pacific Ocean, 2009.
Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, Pacific Ocean, 2009.
World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, multiple sites in Hawaii, Alaska and California, 2008.
Northeast Canyons & Seamounts Marine National Monument, off the coast of New England, 2016.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, 1996.
Mojave Trails National Monument, California, 2016.
Bears Ears National Monument, Utah, 2016.
Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona, 2000.
Basin and Range National Monument, Nevada, 2015.
Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, New Mexico, 2014.
Sonoran Desert National Monument, Arizona, 2001.
Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, Montana, 2001.
Berryessa Snow Mountain, California, 2015.
Giant Sequoia National Monument, California, 2000.
Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada, 2016.
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona, 2000.
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, New Mexico, 2013.
Carrizo Plain National Monument, California, 2001.
Hanford Reach National Monument, Washington, 2000.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Colorado, 2000.
Sand to Snow National Monument, California, 2016.
Ironwood Forest National Monument, Arizona, 2000.
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