President Trump is expected to sign an executive order Wednesday that could end up shrinking — or even nullifying — some large federal national monuments on protected public lands, as established since the Clinton administration.
The move is largely seen as a response by the new administration to two controversial, sweeping national monument designations made late in the Obama administration: the new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah considered sacred to Native American tribes and the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada near the Bundy Ranch, site of the 2014 armed standoff over cattle grazing on public land.
In a briefing with reporters at the White House Tuesday night, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the order will direct his department to review all national monument designations on federal public land since 1996 that are 100,000 acres or more in size. The secretary didn't say whether he would recommend that Bears Ears be shrunk or abolished, only that a review of the designations was long overdue.
"The executive order does not strip any monument of a designation," Zinke said. "The executive order does not loosen any environmental or conservation regulation on any land or marine areas."
Zinke added that he expected the review to look at the boundaries of these monuments and whether sacred sites like cliff dwellings or other important national treasures, as he put it, could still be protected if the monuments were smaller.
Republican and Democratic presidents including George W. Bush and Barack Obama have used the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect large swaths of federal public lands, mostly in the West. Under the Act, only Congress, not the president, has the clear authority to reduce or nullify a monument designation. If the Trump Administration presses forward on its own, it's widely thought the matter will swiftly land in court.
"It's untested," Zinke noted Tuesday.
Designations like the recent Bears Ears often protect large amounts of public land, while grandfathering in certain historical uses like existing cattle grazing leases and mining claims. But new development is largely restricted, which is the source of heated controversy in rural towns surrounded by federal land where many residents make their living from natural resources.
On the other hand, sportsmen groups, conservationists and tribes in some of these same rural areas point to big job gains and tourist revenue where federal land get protection.
Many of these groups aren't mincing words either over the president's expected order tomorrow.
Shawn Chapoose, chairman of the Ute Tribe in Fort Duchesne, Utah, called it an attack on Indian Country.
"Once you destroy these types of resources, these habitats, these areas that are untouched, you can never go back," he said.
Under the order, the Interior Department is expected to review up to 40 monuments, dating back to the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah, first protected by the Clinton administration. Trump has ordered a preliminary report from the agency within 45 days.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order tomorrow that could end up shrinking or even abolishing altogether some protected national monuments on federal public land. These monuments were designated by presidential decree under a 1906 law called the Antiquities Act. The monuments are controversial in the rural West.
NPR's Kirk Siegler joins us now from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. And Kirk, unpack what is in this executive order for us.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Well, this is potentially sweeping, Ari. But at its core, it gives the interior secretary Ryan Zinke 45 days to review national monuments that are a hundred thousand acres or bigger - these are big chunks of federal public land - and recommend whether they should be kept as is, whether they should be shrunk or even nullified altogether.
And this is really widely seen as a direct response to two national monument designations in particular that were made in the late hour of the Obama administration. And these were controversial. There was the Bears Ears Monument in southern Utah which is about a million acres of federal public land considered sacred to Native American tribes. And then you had the Gold Butte Monument designation in Nevada which is near - adjacent to Cliven Bundy's ranch. And he's the anti-federal government rancher who led an armed standoff over cattle grazing.
SHAPIRO: But beyond those two monuments, it sounds as though this order could apply to many more federal lands than that.
SIEGLER: At the White House this evening, briefing reporters, Secretary Zinke estimated he'd be looking at up to 40 national monuments under the executive order. And we're talking about monuments that were designated as far back as the Clinton administration. This goes back to 1996, he said. This is a fight and a conflict over federal land that goes back a long time. Zinke, though, was quick to say that this is just a review. Nothing is final. So let's hear a little bit from that briefing now.
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RYAN ZINKE: The executive order does not strip any monument of a designation. The executive order does not loosen any environmental or conservation regulation on any land or marine areas.
SIEGLER: And, Ari, I think the big point here is that this is potentially untested territory if in fact the executive branch, the administration goes forward on its own without the authority of Congress to either nullify or abolish a national monument or even shrink one. This is something that has not been tested yet in the courts. Secretary Zinke has said as much. And it's widely thought that if in fact this goes beyond a review, environmental groups, tribes are going to challenge this right away.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler. Thank you, Kirk.
SIEGLER: Glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.