President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday that gives the U.S. Department of the Interior only 120 days to file a report evaluating two decades’ worth of national monument designations, even though most of the designations under the Antiquities Act were the culmination of years of public outreach and negotiation.
The Interior Department will submit an initial 45-day review that will focus on the status of the Bears Ears National Monument Designation in Utah, while the full report will look at all of the national monuments designations since January 1, 1996. The White House, in a fact sheet on the executive order, said the designations of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996 and Bears Ears in 2016 “represent the book-ends of modern Antiquities Act overreach.”
During a signing ceremony at the Interior Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., Trump said his executive order will put an end to an “egregious abuse of federal power” that has resulted in a “massive federal land grab.” Trump singled out the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears, designated by President Barack Obama in December, as an action taken “over the profound objections of the citizens of Utah.”
In a press briefing on Tuesday evening, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the review would look at national monuments created since January 1, 1996 that are larger than 100,000 acres. But the executive order signed Wednesday does not limit the review only to 100,000 acre-plus national monuments. It orders the review of all national monument designations since January 1, 1996 where the Interior secretary “determines that the designation or expansion was made without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders.”
Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), who opposes the national monument designation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters Monument in his state, was invited to appear at the signing ceremony. The new Katahdin Woods and Waters monument is only 87,500 acres, below the 100,000-acre threshold mentioned by Zinke on Tuesday.
In his remarks at the signing ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence said the targeted national monuments could see a renewed emphasis on energy production. The oil and gas industry has made it clear it would like to see the Antiquities Act undone.
The American Petroleum Institute, a powerful industry trade group that represents oil and gas companies, asked lawmakers, in a January letter, to modify the Antiquities Act, stating that the increasing use of the law presents “threats to responsible and balanced use of federal lands offshore and onshore,” Politico reported Tuesday.
The Wilderness Society views a potential rollback of national monuments as an “intended give-away” to mining and oil and gas interests at the expense of potentially jeopardizing the resources these monuments were designed to protect, Dan Hartinger, the group’s national monuments campaign manager, told ThinkProgress.
“If you look at the short 100-day history of this administration already, their [modus operandi] has been to continue to give handouts to the oil and gas industry at the expense of the American public, whether it is getting rid of pollution controls or common-sense regulations or ensuring the American people get a fair return for their resources,” Hartinger said.
Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress that “frontline Indigenous communities in our network see Trump’s actions as a way to open up fossil fuel and extractive mineral development within these national monuments designated under the 1906 Antiquities Act.”
Under the executive order, the Interior Department must consider the original objectives of the Antiquities Act, including its requirement that reservations of land not exceed “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
Leaders of the upcoming People’s Climate March in Washington issued statements condemning Trump’s executive order. “So much for being Teddy Roosevelt. Zinke and the Trump administration want to gut the power of the Antiquities Act to shore up the fossil fuel industry,” May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, said in a statement. “On top of all the attacks on our climate, now we’ll have to defend our parks and monuments from Big Oil as well.”
The executive order calls on the Interior Department to conduct outreach on the ground and consult local groups during the review periods. Most of the monuments are the result of years of public outreach and negotiation. The executive order also requires the agency to consult and coordinate with the secretaries of Defense, Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, and Homeland Security.
“The 45-day timeline for Bears Ears is pretty incredible given the decades of work that went into the designation,” Hartinger said. “Setting this arbitrary deadline of 45 days to look at something that took decades of work to protect seems like it’s a transparent effort to come to a predetermined outcome.”
The likely outcome for Bears Ears will be a recommendation from the Interior Department to rescind the areas’s designation as a national monument, he said.
“It’s clearly politically motivated and an attack on national monuments writ large,” Hartinger said. “Going after and potentially recommending revocations or modification and rollbacks of boundaries for national monuments anywhere is an attack on them all. It undermines protections for them all.”
Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program, views Trump’s executive order as a “cynical political exercise” to find the most expedient ways to undo protections of public lands.
“If you’re trying to make a serious case for reviewing these monument designations, the 45-window makes a mockery of that,” Manuel told ThinkProgress. “All of these designations were done with a lot of due diligence, especially the Obama ones. They were, from our perspective, almost too diligent, bending over backwards to try and accommodate local elected officials from Utah and some of the other states they named monuments in.”
The designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996 by the Clinton administration was done more quickly, Manuel recalled. The designation was controversial at the time, but most people who live near the monument area do not believe it has had the negative impact they initially imagined and has had a positive economic impact through recreation and tourism, he said.
“This may be a political exercise to satisfy their base who just hate the federal government and don’t want to see any federal role in protecting public lands. They’re playing the Cliven Bundy and the Malheur [National Wildlife Refuge] crowd here, but they’re not playing to the public,” Manuel said.
The Bears Ears National Monument was designated at the behest of local Native American tribes, who have long been exploited and ignored by the U.S. government, according to Manuel. “This is one way of trying to rectify some of that history where we listen to the tribes and see what they want protected,” he said. “It’s a real insult to a population that we have treated badly historically to say we want to redo the boundaries or in the extreme case rescind protection for Bears Ears.”