Last year, when President Trump carried through on the recommendations of the Secretary of the Interior and significantly reduced the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante “national monuments” he raised the ire of progressives around the nation. (Imagine that.) Some of them don’t see this as a done deal, however, and the media is revealing internal government documents which supposedly show that the White House “dismissed evidence” that these vast plots of government land provided benefits such as bolstering tourism and promoting archeological exploration. Instead, they claim, the administration focused on opening up land to private development. The Washington Post has the latest list of outrages.
In a quest to shrink national monuments last year, senior Interior Department officials dismissed evidence that these public sites boosted tourism and spurred archaeological discoveries, according to documents the department released this month and retracted a day later.
The thousands of pages of email correspondence chart how Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his aides instead tailored their survey of protected sites to emphasize the value of logging, ranching and energy development that would be unlocked if they were not designated national monuments.
Comments the department’s Freedom of Information Act officers made in the documents show that they sought to keep some of the references out of the public eye because they were “revealing [the] strategy” behind the review.
I suppose this makes for a good headline to keep up the drumbeat against Trump during a slow news cycle, but there are a couple of important points to bring up. First of all, the “motivation” behind the decision has little or nothing to do with it beyond political optics and opportunism. The rules regarding the creation of national monuments are clear, even if they’ve been widely abused in the past. The creation (and contraction or elimination) of such monuments is done at the discretion of the President. There was no oversight for this process built into the system.
Far more important, however, is something which we covered in detail last year when the decision was made. These gigantic tracts of land, adding up to literally millions upon millions of acres, never met the definition of a national monument to begin with. You can click through that link for all the pertinent references, but the short version of it is easy to digest.
It’s all based on the 1906 Antiquities Act. It empowers the President to designate as monuments certain “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” The key word there is “objects.” The authors of the Antiquities Act bent over backward to stress that distinction, going on to insist that any such monument only include, “parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
You can take historic buildings, geysers and other individual, unusual natural formations, battlefields or whatever other objects you like and ask the President to declare them national monuments. You can even grab a reasonable parcel of land to allow for people to maintain the monuments and offer tourism opportunities. But you don’t take huge swaths of a state and block them off as government land under this procedure. The fact is that Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante were never monuments to begin with. If you want to preserve that much land, get Congress to turn them into national parks and turn them over to the Park Service. If there are individual historic, archeological finds or natural wonders inside those areas, make a list of them and ask the President to individually declare them monuments. Or keep the list in your pocket and ask the next Democratic president to do so.
The fact is that the “hidden motives” of the administration suggested in the WaPo piece above, even if true, aren’t relevant to the discussion. President Trump is actually following both the spirit and the letter of the law by shrinking these “monuments” and, to be honest, he should have eliminated the designation of the remaining land and asked Congress to make them parks anyway.