December 26, 2017

2017 Top Stories #5: National monuments under fire

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Secretary Ryan Zinke and Sen. Martin Heinrich in New Mexico earlier this summer.

About 739,000 acres of public lands in New Mexico became a big news story this year.

At the end of April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review a number of national monument designations, including two in New Mexico, made under the Antiquities Act since 1996.

See all of our year-end stories

The two New Mexico monuments were the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near Taos and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces

The executive order was a gift to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who had been seeking a way to diminish protections of two monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

At the signing ceremony for the order, Trump recognized Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah Sen. Mike Lee and in particular, Hatch. “Believe me, he’s tough. He would call me and say, ‘you gotta do this.’ Isn’t that right, Orrin?” Trump said. “He’s shocked that I’m doing it, but I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Trump directed Zinke to provide an interim report within 45 days and a final report within 120 days. In that report, Zinke would suggest legislative changes or modifications to monuments that are more than 100,000 acres in size. Zinke traveled the country, visiting monuments including Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, but he was criticized by local officials and conservationists for not attending a public meeting in Las Cruces about the review.

The secretary delivered the report to Trump in August, but wouldn’t release his recommendations publicly. The 19-page report was leaked to the press, and showed changes to some monuments, as well as inaccuracies.

During a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, Sen. Martin Heinrich asked a high ranking U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) official about the errors and false claims in Zinke’s review. Some of those errors were fixed in the version publicly released by the White House later in the year.

Then, in early December, Trump visited Utah and announced he would drastically reduce the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. The following day, Zinke released his recommendations for the other monuments under review.

During a press, the secretary said he based his decision not to alter boundaries of the two New Mexico monuments on conversations with the governor, the state’s congressional delegation, ranchers, conservationists and city officials. But, he said, the proclamations for both monuments must be changed to ensure traditional grazing practices continue and to allow Border Patrol to review “possible improvements” in southern New Mexico.

Sen. Tom Udall remained skeptical of the recommendations, and issued a statement afterwards saying Zinke was still relying on “hearsay and bad data.”

During that press call, Zinke also lashed out at Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, which had replaced its normal homepage with a black-and-white note that reads, “The President Stole Your Land” after the announcements.

“What one square inch of land was stolen? The federal estate remains intact,” he said. “I think it’s shameful and appalling they would blatantly lie to gain money in their coffers.” The secretary said he doesn’t yield to pressure. “Sound public management is not based on the threats of lawsuits. It’s based on doing what’s right.”

Presidents have the authority to create national monuments under the Antiquities Act, which became law in the early part of the 20th century. Signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the law gave presidents the authority to bypass Congress and protect federal lands that have archaeological or historical sites or are scientifically significant. Sixteen presidents, including eight Republicans and eight Democrats, have used the act to designate national monuments. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act, enacted in 1976, reaffirms the right of presidents to create monuments and forbids changes to them once they’ve been designated.

To read all our coverage of national monuments in 2017, click here.