Interior to Recommend Shrinking National Monuments

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommends making key national monuments smaller.

By Steve Casimiro


The opposition to Donald Trump’s review to reduce or eliminate national monuments created by presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton was nearly unanimous—more than 99.2 percent of 1.3 million comments analyzed were against changing the borders of these protected lands. Nevertheless, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will today recommend that Trump shrink protections for “a handful” of monuments, he told the Associated Press. That likely will include the 2,112-square-mile Bears Ears National Monument, which Zinke has previously said should be reduced.

After reviewing 27 monuments created under the Antiquities Act of 1906, Zinke did not recommended that Trump eliminate any of them.

Zinke’s review has rallied the outdoor industry and outraged Americans, who overwhelmingly support the protection of public lands. Even in the stubbornly independent states of Maine and Nevada, more than 75 percent of those who commented were in favor of leaving monuments untouched. Patagonia created and released its first television ad, urging Trump to leave the lands alone. More than 350 outdoor industry CEOs signed a letter opposing any change to existing monuments, while pointing out that outdoor recreation adds $887 billion a year to the economy and $125 billion in taxes.

The creation of national monuments is often called a “land grab” by those opposed. The most controversial was the 1996 creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah by Bill Clinton, an act that still has many Utahns irate and has engendered much of the animus toward Bears Ears.

Opponents complain that monument protections hurt locals’ livelihoods, but studies in 2011, 2014, and 2017 by Headwater Economics show that most national monuments lift the economies in nearby communities and counties. The group looked at 17 monuments and found that “per capita income increased for the studied counties adjacent to every national monument in the years following establishment. This rise in personal wealth is significant, particularly in rural areas where average earnings per job are often declining.” Nowhere, the data showed, were there economic downturns after monument creation.

The studies also found that:

• From the early 1970s to the early 2010s, western rural counties with the highest share of protected federal lands on average had faster population, employment, and personal income growth—two times faster or more—than their peers with the lowest share of protected federal lands.

• Protected lands increase per capita income. In 2010, per capita income in western nonmetropolitan counties with 100,000 acres of protected public lands was on average $4,360 higher than per capita income in similar counties with no protected public lands.

In June, four law professors argued in the Virginia Law Review that the president has no authority to revoke or shrink national monuments. The Constitution’s “Property Clause” gives Congress authority over public lands, and while Congress can give the president authority to create, as it did with the Antiquities Act, it has not given the power to rescind.

Nevertheless, monuments have been reduced 19 times since Devils Tower became the first national monument in 1906. None of those reductions have been challenged in court, as Trump’s expected moves will be. “We have our complaint already ready to file,” Charles Wilkinson, a professor of public land law and adviser to Native American tribes, told the New York Times. This is “an attack on a significant part of the foundation of American conservation law.”

While opposed by most Americans, Zinke’s move is consistent with the Trump administration’s favoritism of industry and embrace of fewer restrictions on public lands. The administration has pushed for more coal mining, halted a study on the effects of mountaintop mining, suspended an Obama era rule on methane pollution, and proposed an Interior Department budget that would cut resource protection by 23 percent while increase energy development by $13 million.