Commentary: One of our newest national monuments, Bears Ears in Utah, is the latest target of President Trump’s administrative efforts to roll back protections for America’s public lands. In April, an ill-conceived Executive Order set into motion a review of 27 national monuments across the country, from Maine to California. Working under a shockingly brief 45-day deadline to issue recommendations on the fate of Bears Ears, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivered his preliminary report, suggesting that portions of the monument be revoked and protections weakened in other areas.
Bears Ears National Monument was initially proposed by a coalition of five sovereign tribal governments and designated in December by President Obama – after years of review and public efforts. The monument encompasses an area rich with Native American cultural and archeological sites, preserved in a stunningly beautiful natural landscape. Tribal representatives and others worked tirelessly to achieve national monument protections, so urgently needed to end the looting, vandalism and grave-robbing that has plagued the region for years.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition quickly condemned Secretary Zinke’s recommendations, issuing a statement saying, “For us, Bears Ears is a homeland. It always has been and still is. The radical idea of breaking up Bears Ears National Monument is a slap in the face to the members of our Tribes and an affront to Indian people all across the country. Any attempt to eliminate or reduce the boundaries of this Monument would be wrong on every count. Such action would be illegal, beyond the reach of presidential authority.”
The coalition is backed by more than one million people who submitted comments to the Department of the Interior, calling on Secretary Zinke to leave national monuments intact. And there is overwhelming support in California from both the public and state lawmakers, for the protection of all 27 national monuments under review – including seven in California.
California’s legislature has passed a joint resolution defending the Antiquities Act as a critical tool for the designation of national monuments and the protection of economic, historical, cultural, and ecological values that they provide for Americans. The resolution calls on President Trump to honor and protect the integrity of all national monuments as they have been designated by presidents of the United States since 1906. California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris have also called on Secretary Zinke to preserve the current boundaries of all California national monuments currently under review.
But sadly, it appears the Department of the Interior intends to bow to pressure from a small group of extremists in Congress, who have long been promoting the takeover of public lands, while catering to the special interests of polluters. Not only is this entire national monument review process unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer dollars, President Trump does not have the legal authority to act on these recommendations. The Antiquities Act grants a president the ability to designate a national monument but not the power to revoke or diminish one.
Most legal scholars agree that the president lacks the legal authority to undermine protection efforts put in place by previous presidents through use of the Antiquities Act, which has been used by 16 presidents, 8 Democrats and 8 Republicans — from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama — to designate national monuments. This is not a partisan issue. It is a battle to save our national treasures for future generations. What happens with Bears Ears National Monument sets the stage for additional attacks on all of America’s national parks and public lands.
If President Trump acts on Secretary Zinke’s recommendations, The Wilderness Society will fight to defend Bears Ears and the Antiquities Act – including taking swift legal action.
But even if we are forced to go to court, Americans across the country must share in the defense of our public lands. You can still make your voice heard by submitting a comment to the Department of the Interior, supporting Bears Ears and all our national monuments. The public comment period for Bears Ears has been extended to July 10, coinciding with the comment deadline for the complete list of national monuments under review.
Commentaries are the opinions of their authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of KCETLink. Banner: Petroglyphs in Comb Wash, Bears Ears N.M. Photo: Mason Cummings, The Wilderness Society