President Trump Should Defend Federal Land Use and End Abuse of Antiquities Act

If news reports are accurate, the review of National Monument designations submitted by Interior Secretary Zinke does not begin to fulfill the charge given him by President Trump on April 26th. The recommendations to somewhat shrink two of the most outlandish designations in Utah—Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante—are at most a first step toward undoing the multiple abuses of the Antiquities Act of 1906 committed by Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton.

At the signing ceremony in April, President Trump stated: “Today, I am signing an executive order to end another egregious abuse of federal power and to give that power back to the states and to the people, where it belongs.” He called the use of the antiquated Antiquities Act to lock up land a “massive federal land grab” and said “it’s gotten worse and worse.”

The Antiquities Act was never intended to lock up vast expanses of federal lands as de facto National Parks or Wilderness Areas. Congress clearly intended to allow the President to protect immediately specific sites, such as Native American ruins, from looting and destruction in stating that “the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” Since 1906, Congress has passed many other laws that fully protect all federal lands and therefore the Antiquities Act should be repealed. Until then, we urge President Trump to keep his promise to end the abuses and to begin to correct the worst abuses. We hope that he will do so in his announcement in Utah on Monday.      

He clearly recognizes that all of these lands are already owned by the federal government. They are managed, regulated, and fully protected by the government. These are public lands available for multiple uses by all the people. They provide protection for natural resources, waters, flora and fauna, Native American sites, natural geological sites, fossil deposits, public recreation, as well as economic uses that benefit the nation, such as timber harvest, mining, oil and gas exploration, and grazing. 

President Trump also understands that the misuse of the Antiquities Act by radical environmental pressure groups and compliant presidents circumvents the constitutional authority of Congress by turning these lands into de facto National Parks and Wilderness Areas. This prohibits almost all economic uses of these vast multi-million acre landscapes, especially their important energy and mineral deposits.

Secretary Zinke also recognized this, stating that the “Act became the tool of political advocacy rather than public interest…”

This has severe economic impacts across rural America and especially on the people who live or work in or near these lands. Well-paying jobs are lost, people move away from the area, and the economic and tax base for rural counties and small towns is destroyed, closing schools, downsizing police, fire protection, and road maintenance. 

A massive misinformation effort is underway, claiming that rescinding any National Monuments will be a disaster and lead to ruin. That is totally disingenuous. All the lands will remain fully protected and regulated, no economic activities can occur without years-long permitting processes, and disturbance of Native American sites and collecting of artifacts is prohibited.

We therefore urge President Trump in his upcoming announcement on Monday to go much further in rescinding and shrinking a number of other National Monument designations. At the top of the list should be rescinding the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine and returning the land to private ownership. The acceptance of this land from a private donor and its immediate designation as a National Monument by President Obama circumvented congressional authority to acquire land and set a terrible precedent. 

Other National Monument designations that should be rescinded or shrunk radically include Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in southern New Mexico, Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon and California, Basin and Range in Nevada, and Castle Mountains in California. The designation of huge areas of the Pacific Ocean as National Monuments clearly exceeds the authority of the Antiquities Act which applies only to land owned by the federal government and should be eliminated.