The U.S. Department of the Interior issued a press release about Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recent visit to the Sabinoso Wilderness in northern New Mexico—and a land transfer that would allow the federal government to open up a “landlocked” wilderness area to the public. The announcement left many involved with the issue confused. That’s because the secretary didn’t say he was denying or approving the land transfer. Rather, he said he “intend(s) to finalize the process to consider whether to accept” the donation of 3,595 acres of private land. In other words, he would start the process of making a decision.
The Interior Department has finished a sweeping review of 98 West-wide sage grouse management plans, part of a broader effort to examine what President Donald Trump deems potential barriers to energy extraction on federal public lands. The review, which took place across the 10 Western states with existing sage grouse plans, ended with a contentious report filed to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week. A panel of federal officials authored the report, which was released to the public on Monday. The report suggests scaling back protections for the imperiled bird, in an effort to give states (and likely industry) more flexibility. Some governors and industry groups say the recommendations open the door to more development.
No president has ever abolished a national monument, and it has been more than 50 years since a president shrank one. Nor has Congress revoked any significant monuments. The high regard given these special places is part of what makes President Donald Trump’s order to review all large monuments designated since 1996 so extraordinary. Courts have never decided whether a president has the legal authority to change or undo a designated monument, and now this uncertainty has sparked a clash of legal titans. A multitude of legal experts — including 121 law professors — argue that presidents lack the power to alter or revoke monuments.
During President Barack Obama’s eight-year tenure, tribal sovereignty, the power by which tribes govern themselves, was a prime concern. But under the Trump administration, that may change. There are several indicators of this shift, including proposed budget cuts to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs and the de-prioritization of major land initiatives. Within the first six months of President Donald Trump’s administration, the Department of Interior has renewed its interest of energy development and tribal land privatization. That differs starkly from Obama policies, which focused on both acquiring and consolidating land for tribal nations.
On July 20, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spoke at a closed-door meeting of conservative state legislators and lobbyists, raising questions about his stated goals of transparency in federal government. Zinke, a former Montana congressman, spoke in Denver at the annual meeting for the American Legislative Exchange Council, an industry organization backed by Koch Industries and ExxonMobil and devoted to “limited government, free markets and federalism.”
ALEC, whose initiatives include a push for state control over federal lands, provides model bills for state legislatures and influences bills going through Congress. Because of the group’s funding sources and its interest in states holding public lands, conservationists see Zinke’s association with the group as problematic. Throughout his congressional confirmation process for the Department of Interior position, and in the early months of his job, Zinke has reiterated that he does not favor land transfers. “The things that Zinke has claimed he stood for, in terms of public lands, ALEC are the ones driving against that all these years,” says Aaron Weiss, media director at the Center for Western Priorities.
In New Mexico last week, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke met with elected leaders, local sportsmen, ranchers and veterans. The former Montana congressman squeezed in a horseback ride and even showed off some wrestling moves to New Mexico’s senators. Currently, Zinke is considering the fate of about 20 places currently protected as national monuments, including Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks near Las Cruces and Rio Grande del Norte near Taos. New Mexico’s senators and sportsmen took advantage of his visit to the state, bringing him to the Sabinoso Wilderness in San Miguel County. Even though Congress designated the wilderness in 2009, hikers, hunters and horseback riders have been locked out of the 16,000-acre area’s canyons and mesas.
U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Zinke is visiting New Mexico this week as part of his review of national monuments throughout the country, including New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monuments. Zinke will visit northern New Mexico—but not Rio Grande del Norte itself— Saturday with U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall. The Interior head’s schedule primarily focuses on southern New Mexico and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks. That has led to speculation the secretary will not order a review of Rio Grande del Norte near Taos, but will call for changes to the 496,000-acre monument in southern New Mexico. President Barack Obama designated the monument near Las Cruces in 2014 after a decade of planning and public meetings.
TAOS, N.M. — New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte National Monuments could shrink dramatically if their protected status is removed or their size is reduced, and the decisions could come by late August. A report from Democrats on the U.S. Joint Economic Committee warns that could mean a loss of millions of tourism dollars in New Mexico. Stuart Wilde guides tourists on llama treks through the Rio Grande monument near Taos. He said he agrees that the economic impact would be significant. “People come to hike and bike, and fish and hunt, and camp and experience these national monuments,” Wilde said.
U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued an order Thursday, aimed at boosting oil and gas leasing on federal lands. During a call with reporters, Zinke said the agency was specifically targeting for development places like the Permian Basin in New Mexico, Utah’s Uintah Basin and the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. Out of the 700 million acres administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), he said only about 27 million are currently under lease. He also called out the agency for the length of time it takes to approve permits for oil and gas projects. The BLM’s permitting process, he said, takes 257 days.
The Trump administration reassigned several top-level employees in its reorganization of the U.S. Department of the Interior. That includes Dr. Benjamin Tuggle, regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, and Weldon “Bruce” Loudermilk, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The New Mexico State Director for the Bureau of Land Management, Amy Lueders, whose background is in economics, is also being reassigned to the Fish and Wildlife Service. In a state like New Mexico, with more than 20 American Indian tribes, vast tracts of public lands, federal water projects, myriad endangered species issues, large-scale oil and gas development and existing and proposed mines on public lands, the staffing changes—and what they signal— could have deep and long-lasting effects on the state’s landscapes, communities and future. During a Senate subcommittee hearing last week, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall questioned Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about the staffing changes, slated to take place at the end of June.