In April, President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. Department of the Interior to conduct a review of 27 national monuments, with an eye toward altering or revoking their status. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has been charged with leading the review and providing recommendations to the White House by August 24. So far, the review has amounted to nothing more than a popularity contest based on Zinke’s secret, ever-evolving, and seemingly personal criteria.
Already, Secretary Zinke has recommended that Bears Ears National Monument in Utah—a 1.35-million-acre area protecting sacred Native American sites and ecologically significant landscapes—be cut nearly in half. Since then, Zinke has announced that five other monuments—Craters of the Moon in Idaho, Hanford Reach in Washington, Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado, Grand Canyon-Parashant in Arizona, and Upper Missouri River Breaks in Zinke’s home state of Montana—have been spared. The reasoning? “As a former geologist, I realize Craters of the Moon is a living timeline of the geologic history of our land,” he said. Of Washington’s national monument, he explained, “Sportsmen and women from all over the country go to Hanford Reach for some of the best fishing and bird hunting around.” In his statement pardoning Grand Canyon-Parashant, he highlighted that the monument illustrates “the scientific history of our earth while containing thousands of years of human relics and fossils.”
But what about the exceptional fishing and hunting in monuments such as Rio Grande del Norte? Or the particularly unique geologic characteristics in San Gabriel Mountains National Monument? Or the 21 never-before-seen dinosaur fossils found since the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante? From the beginning, the review has been a guessing game as to which monuments are actually being targeted, how the review is being conducted, whose voices will be heard, and what is driving Zinke’s decisions. The seemingly random and contradictory “pardons” he has handed down create uncertainty for America’s public lands and the multibillion-dollar state outdoor recreation economies that depend on them. The country’s national monuments should not be treated like contestants on a reality show, to be voted off one at time.
So if the only thing that’s been consistent throughout the review is its arbitrariness, how will the secretary decide which monuments make the cut?
Here is Secretary Zinke’s guide to running a sham review.
Step 1: Set up vague criteria
The executive order outlining the review included a series of seven vague criteria that Secretary Zinke was directed to consider: whether the monuments fit the requirements of the Antiquities Act, even though all of them were created under the act and thus already meet its requirements; whether the monuments include places or artifacts of historic or scientific interest; and how the designation affects land use, as well as “concerns of State, tribal, and local governments,” such as their “economic development and fiscal condition”; “the availability of Federal resources”; and “other factors as the Secretary deems appropriate.”
This last one is important. It gives Zinke the liberty to do anything he wants.
Step 2: Ignore almost all those criteria
The five monuments that Zinke has pardoned so far did not appear to be chosen based on the first six criteria listed above—at least not publicly. There were no economic analyses, public meetings, written reports, or visits from Zinke.
Step 3: Listen to one-sided arguments
Secretary Zinke kicked off his so-called listening tour in May with a four-day trip to Utah, where he toured Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. But Zinke’s trip was skewed to listening almost entirely to those who oppose the national monuments. For example, Zinke made time in his schedule for a number of county commissioners against the monuments, nearly all of Utah’s anti-park members of Congress, and the right-wing Sutherland Institute, but he didn’t manage to meet with Native American-led nonprofits or local chambers of commerce. Tribal groups deemed Zinke’s one-hour consultation with them “insufficient.”
Zinke has so far failed to hold a single public meeting. On his recent trip to New Mexico, Zinke was invited by local elected officials to participate in a town hall on the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks monument, but he declined to participate. What’s worse, well before most of his visit and outreach had been conducted, Zinke indicated to a group of veterans that he was already interested in shrinking the monument. On his most recent trip to the monuments in Nevada, he cut his tour short, spending less than 24 hours in the state and canceling meetings with several key stakeholders.
Step 4: Set up a phony public comment period
In May, Secretary Zinke opened what he branded the “first ever formal comment period” on monument designations because he and Trump “both strongly believe that local input is a critical component of federal land management.” Although the comment period ended July 10, the Interior Department has not given any sense of how it plans to assess or use the input it gathered.
But how it approaches the comments should not change its conclusion. A Center for Western Priorities analysis of 2.7 million comments submitted to the Interior Department found that 98 percent supported leaving the national monument designations as they are. Based on these numbers alone, Zinke should have dropped his review.
Step 5: Get the outcome you want
The administration’s pardoning of monuments one by one does not change the fact that the fate of these national treasures rests in the hands of a process without logic or transparency. Whether it’s Secretary Zinke’s cozy relationship with the oil and gas industry, his use of public lands as political blackmail, or an attempt to boost his political career, it’s clear that the review process is bogus.
Putting aside the fact that any executive action on monuments is illegal, Secretary Zinke’s review is a sham that goes against the wishes of the American people and puts public lands and local economies at risk. Without clear criteria or a transparent record of what is being considered in pardoning or eviscerating U.S. national monuments, any consequences that come from Zinke’s review should not be viewed as legitimate.
Jenny Rowland is the research and advocacy manager for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.
The author would like to thank Kate Kelly and Meghan Miller for their contributions to this column.
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Deputy Director, Public Lands