The Washington Post recently published what they claim is a copy of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s memorandum on national monuments designations under the Antiquities Act. The memorandum was created in response to President Trump’s call for a review of national monument designations under previous administrations. The memo has yet to be officially published by the White House.
According to the leaked memo, Secretary Zinke recommended that President Trump should consider changing the size of six national monuments and modifying the management of ten of them. Overall, if real, the memo suggests that President Trump has the power to and should rein in past abuses of the Antiquities Act.
The national monuments listed in the memo to be resized include Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, Gold Butte in Nevada, Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon, and two marine monuments. The memo also suggests changing management practices of these monuments, as well as for four others. Some of the management changes include allowing infrastructure upgrades, tribal access to lands, timber harvesting, energy production, and other forms of natural resource development.
There is precedent for the president to change the size and management of national monuments. Presidents have reduced the size of national monuments 18 times since the Antiquities Act passed in 1906. Moreover, President Franklin Roosevelt modified the management of the then Katmai National monument.
As pointed out in the memo, Congress intended there to be limits placed on the president’s ability to declare national monuments. Unlike other types of federal land protections, national monument designations do not have to go through the typical notice and comment period where public participation occurs.
One of the limits put into the Antiquities Act by Congress was that the monument designation should be restricted to “the smallest area possible compatible with proper care and management of the objects. President Theodore Roosevelt’s first national monument designation was for 1,200 acres protecting Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Compare that amount to President Obama’s proclamation of Bears Ears in Utah which locked up 1.35 million acres.
Rightsizing national monuments can help ensure better protection of the most important historic and cultural objects and sites. Too large a monument means manpower and financial resources are spread too thin. The focus should be on protecting the important historic objects and sites at national monuments, not declaring millions of acres off limits to locals who depend on the land for economic activity.
Declaring land as a national monument doesn’t ensure that protection of historic objects and sites actually happens. The federal government currently has a backlog of $18.62 billion in maintenance projects. These projects range from roads and trails to irrigation projects and dams. Proper roads and trails help prevent people from wandering off path and damaging sites while water management limits erosion. Federal land agencies can generate more revenue for maintenance by allowing economic activity such as grazing and timber sales to occur on federal land.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has undertaken the important task of reforming how the US protects historic sites. Past administrations took a sledgehammer approach — creating too large of national monuments — resulting in agencies lacking the necessary resources to adequately manage sites. A better approach is to rightsize monuments and allow for limited economic activity in areas where there won’t be damage. Declaring millions of acres as a “monument” spreads resources too thin, harms local economies, and reduces government revenue that can go back into managing federal lands.
If the leaked memo is real, it shows Interior Secretary Zinke is on the right track to reforming national monuments and federal lands.