Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has made an admirable attempt to solicit input from Montanans about how national monuments have affected our state. It’s unfortunate that effort has been drowned out by fake advertisements aimed at misleading Montanans and funded by out-of-state environmental groups.
Opposition to the monuments review centers on the ridiculous claim that it will result in the federal government selling federal land to private entities. Not only is that the direct opposite of Secretary Zinke’s stated objective, it’s illegal for the federal government to sell public land.
Yet we hear over and over again that the Trump administration has some secret plan to sell lands currently in national monuments. It’s a fake narrative designed to avoid having a real conversation about the impact monuments have had in Montana and other states.
One of the red flags that prompted the monument review by Secretary Zinke was the sheer scope of land that has been encompassed using the Antiquities Act, which has included hundreds of thousands of acres of private land. It’s clear from the language of the Antiquities Acts itself that it was never intended to be the vehicle for a government land grab.
The Antiquities Act also requires that monuments be limited to things like “historic landmarks, and “historic or prehistoric structures.” The Act also limits designations to federal lands and requires that the size of the monument be “the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects.”
It is obvious these statutory limitations have been flagrantly ignored over the last twenty years. Since 1996, presidents have used the Act to create 26 monuments larger than 100,000 acres. These 26 monuments aren’t restricted to existing federal lands –in all cases private lands have been swept up in these massive monument designations.
A skewed conception of monuments has developed. The Antiquities Act was intended to protect things like archaeological sites and geological formations. It was never intended to encompass vast swathes of land.
The most notorious example is the Missouri Breaks Monument, which sweeps around and isolates over 80,000 acres of private land. The Breaks monument designation didn’t provide any new protections for the Missouri River, which was already protected with a Wild and Scenic River designation – this designation was simply a flagrant land grab.
Farmers and ranchers who’ve had their property engulfed by presidential decree have seen new restrictions that negatively affect their property and offensive intrusions by federal regulators. These landowners live with the ominous knowledge that the federal government has its sights set on one day acquiring their land that lies within the monument boundaries.
Hunters, anglers, and other outdoor recreationalists have seen a reduction in access to public land with monument designations. Claims that there is somehow an uptick in tourism after a monument designation are also fake – the public land was already there, now it’s just harder to get to. Over 200 miles of public roads have been closed in the Missouri Breaks monument alone.
These are the type of negative monument impacts Zinke was attempting to review. Apparently, it’s worth an awful lot to out-of-state environmental groups to stop that conversation from happening – they spent millions on fake advertising to stop it from happening.
In his summary report to the president, Zinke summed things up nicely: “No President should use the authority under the Act to restrict public access, prevent hunting and fishing, burden private land, or eliminate traditional land uses.” It’s time to return to that standard.
Chuck Denowh is the policy director of United Property Owners of Montana.
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