Pressure Trump to keep Bears Ears
The American people have appropriated to their own use millions of acres of Western public land in the form of national parks and national monuments. The national parks are created by acts of Congress, but the president has unilateral power to establish new national monuments to protect unique and fragile landscapes from the ravages of resource extraction or other industrial development.
While most large public lands bills are stuck in our deadlocked Congress, recent presidents of both parties have used the Antiquities Act to protect large areas of public land in the West.
The presidential authority for designating public land, buildings or other features as national monuments was established by the Antiquities Act passed by Congress in 1906 with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt. Many of our current national parks evolved from national monuments, including four of Utah’s big five: Arches, Bryce, Zion and Capitol Reef.
At the request of five Native American tribes with ancestral connections to the Bears Ears, President Obama designated 1.35 million acres — reduced from a request for 1.9 million acres — as the Bears Ears National Monument last December. It was one of his final environmental presidential orders.
This designation was of particular importance to Native American tribes with ancestral ties to the Bears Ears. Making the area a national monument will protect their access to the land for both ceremonial purposes and for hunting, wood and herb gathering and other traditional uses.
Notably, while the Antiquities Act empowers a president to create national monuments, it grants no authority for reversing the decision. Nor does it grant any authority for nullifying or rescinding a previous presidential order issued under the act.
“The Antiquities Act expressly authorizes the President to create a national monument, but it does not authorize a later President to revoke or modify a national monument,” Professor Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond School of Law told NPR.
In 1938, the U. S. attorney general wrote a formal opinion affirming that the Antiquities Act authorized a president to establish a national monument, but that it did not grant the president the right to abolish one, according to a Washington Post story.
In an unprecedented challenge of presidential authority, Donald Trump is the first president to challenge his predecessor’s public lands decisions. He has ordered the Department of Interior to review all designations of national monuments greater than 100,000 acres created since 1996 — the year President Bill Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
According to National Public Radio, the executive order signed by Trump “places at least 20 — and as many as 40 — monuments in the government’s sights.”
The establishment of the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument has stuck in the craw of Utah Republicans since it was established. Abolishing it is high on the Utah Republican wish list. Failure to do so has become a constant irritant to conservative politicians.
Opponents of designating more public land as national monuments see such designations as unwelcome federal intervention into state and local affairs. Trump himself explained: “In December of last year alone, the federal government asserted this power over 1.35 million acres of land in Utah known as Bears Ears — I’ve heard a lot about Bears Ears, and I hear it’s beautiful — over the profound objections of the citizens of Utah. ... The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it is time we ended this abusive practice.”
Previous presidents have adjusted boundaries and reduced the size of monuments created by a predecessor. But none until Trump have ventured to reverse a predecessor’s decision to preserve a particular landscape, natural feature or structure by designating it a national monument.
Trump called the designation of national monument status to Bears Ears a “massive land grab.” Since the land is already owned by the government — i.e. the people — it is difficult to understand how that characterization fits.
Instead, the land grab attempted by the corporate powers Trump serves has been temporarily halted. Those who want to preserve the priceless heritage of Bears Ears must keep pressure on until the protection of a national monument can be established. If not by Trump, then by his successor.