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Monumental Fumble

Leaked Zinke memo provides a skewed view of protections.


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Cedar Mesa Ruins at Bears Ears National Monument. - U.S. BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
  • U.S. Bureau of Land Management
  • Cedar Mesa Ruins at Bears Ears National Monument.
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke - VIA DOI.GOV
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  • Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke

Late last month, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke submitted a report on his review of 27 national monuments to the White House. Zinke's suggestions, kept secret at the time, recently were made public by The Washington Post. The report calls for significantly shrinking boundaries at Utah's Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, Gold Butte in Nevada, and Cascade-Siskiyou, which straddles the Oregon-California border; and looser restrictions on activities at Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande Del Norte national monuments, both in New Mexico. It also proposes changing allowed activities at three marine monuments and one in Maine.

Monument status protects significant landmarks, structures or "objects of historic or scientific interest" on federal land under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The leaked memo, however, claims recent monument proclamations have gone too far in designating things like ecosystems and biodiversity as "objects." But a century-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling shows that judges have long recognized that the definition of an "object" in this context is expansive—large enough, in fact, to encompass the Grand Canyon itself.

Despite the report's rhetoric, there's legal and historical support for a broad definition of what constitutes an "object" in need of protection. "It's clear from the very beginning of the act that it doesn't mean an object you can hold in your hand," says Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice based in Seattle. "It has always meant something broader."

Several national parks were first protected as national monuments, including the Grand Canyon; the landscapes themselves were the objects protected. In 1920, the Supreme Court explicitly stated that the Grand Canyon qualifies as "an object of unusual scientific interest."

Zinke's report says that decisions to shelter certain objects in some modern monuments were "likely politically motivated." Later, it states that "the Secretary has concerns that in modern uses of the act, objects are not consistently and clearly defined." But the argument for a narrower definition, implying "that Congress really intended just to protect small areas, or objects that are relatively limited, is just wrong," according to Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney of the Rocky Mountain regional Earthjustice office.

Recently protected objects include biodiversity at Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument—the "spectacular variety of rare and beautiful species of plants and animals" that live there, according to the proclamation that established the monument in 2000. Cascade-Siskiyou also is a "biological crossroads," an area that links several rich ecosystems. "By protecting that bridge itself, you're benefitting much more area than just the bridge," Dave Willis, chair of environmental group Soda Mountain Wilderness Council, says.

To safeguard that biodiversity, the original proclamation included a rule against driving motor vehicles off-road; the leaked report incorrectly states that all motorized transportation was prohibited. That error is emblematic of the report, which, Willis asserts, discounts years of scientific and public support. "To have [that support] dismissed with such a slapdash, error-filled report is extremely frustrating," he says.

The report argues for shrinking or changing monuments, in part to bolster mining, timber production, grazing and other natural resource-dependent industries. That focus has environmental groups concerned that Zinke is more interested in exploiting the landscapes than protecting them. Despite evidence that the economies of counties bordering national monuments are not negatively impacted by protections, the report repeatedly links monuments to financial hardship and calls for opening up protected areas to extractive activities. "This is all political posturing," McIntosh says of the review process. "This is not about doing right by the land or the majority of people who cherish these places."

And many people do cherish national monuments. More than 2.8 million comments on the review were submitted to the Department of the Interior—the vast majority in favor of keeping them intact. The report, however, states that most originated from a handful of nonprofit campaigns, rather than individuals' comments.

Earthjustice and several other environmental organizations plan to sue the federal government if Trump follows the recommendations outlined in Zinke's report and shrinks any monuments. "These are national treasures," McIntosh says. "They deserve a vigorous defense—and that's what they're going to get."

A version of this article originally appeared in High Country News on Sept. 19.