On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review national monument designations, including two in New Mexico, made under the Antiquities Act since 1996.
“We’re now getting something done that people thought would never get done, and I’m doing it in honor of you guys,” Trump said during the signing ceremony, calling out a number of Republican lawmakers, including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In particular, Trump recognized Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, saying “Believe me, he’s tough. He would call me and say, ‘you gotta do this.’ Isn’t that right, Orrin? He’s shocked that I’m doing it, but I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”
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Trump also directed Zinke to provide an interim report within 45 days and a final report within 120 days. In that report, Zinke will suggest legislative changes or modifications to monuments that are more than 100,000 acres in size.
Trump said he was signing the order “to end these abuses and to return control to the people, the people of Utah, the people of all the states, the people of the United States.” Trump spoke specifically of Bears Ears National Monument, which President Barack Obama designated last year. “Tremendously positive things are going to happen on that incredible land, the likes of which, there is nothing more beautiful in the world,” he said. “But now, tremendously positive things will happen.”
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. Then, in 1996, President Bill Clinton established Utah’s Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, enraging the state’s lawmakers and other conservative westerners. Clinton’s designation put those 1.7 million acres in southern Utah off limits to a proposed coal mine.
Since 1996, presidents have designated more than one billion acres of national monuments. That includes three new national monuments in New Mexico, including Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks (2001, 5,394 acres), Rio Grande Del Norte (2013, 242,555 acres) and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks (2014, 498,815 acres).
Conservationists in New Mexico reacted strongly to news of the executive order.
“This executive order is an assault on our nation’s historical, cultural and natural history, not only in New Mexico but across our country,” said Michael Casaus, New Mexico director for The Wilderness Society. “It’s important to remember that both of the newer national monument designations in New Mexico were the result of not only the conservation community calling for the protection of those important landscapes, but of ranchers, small business owners, land grant heirs [and] sportsmen, too. It was a rare showing of unity as diverse constituencies came together.”
In Colorado College’s annual Conservation in the West Poll last year, New Mexicans overwhelmingly supported the state’s new national monuments. Eighty-two percent of registered voters said monuments designated in the past decade should be kept in place.
The politics of monuments
New Mexico’s senators, both Democrats, are opposed to the executive order.
In mid-April, Sen. Tom Udall, along with Sen. Martin Heinrich and seven other western Democratic senators, sent a letter to Trump asking him to uphold a campaign promise to protect the nation’s public lands. In the letter, they wrote:
You promised that, if elected, you’d emulate President Teddy Roosevelt’s efforts to protect public lands for all Americans. During his confirmation hearing, [U.S. Department of the] Interior Secretary Zinke reaffirmed your Administration’s commitment to President Roosevelt’s conservation vision. Unfortunately, some members of Congress do not share that commitment to conservation and are calling for the repeal of National Monument designations using a never-tested and questionable legal theory.
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A spokeswoman for Udall said the senator is updating that letter and remains opposed to the executive order.
During a call with reporters on Tuesday, Heinrich said that if Trump “really wants to make America great,” he’ll use the Antiquities Act as other presidents have to protect the country’s assets. Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, he said, have “generated enormous enthusiasm in New Mexico and the Southwest.” Meanwhile, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks is managed by the federal government and the Pueblo of Cochiti.
“That set a great precedent,” Heinrich said, “of the Department of the Interior working with a sovereign tribe. That’s something we should encourage and see more of.”
Because Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is smaller than 100,000 acres, it won’t be affected by Trump’s order.
Much of the pushback against national monuments has come from the Utah congressional delegation. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, for instance, is a proponent of private property and states’ rights and an opponent of national monument designations. As chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Bishop announced earlier this year that the Republican members of the committee will “strengthen an aggressive agenda that we will pursue in partnership with a new administration.”
Ahead of the executive order, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Hatch “has pressed Trump for action on the Bears Ears declaration.”
At the end of December, President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, protecting 1.35 million acres, including those sacred to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, Hopi Nation and Zuni Tribe.
According to his statement to the Tribune, Hatch said he was committed to “rolling back the egregious abuse of the Antiquities Act to serve far-left special interests.” He continued: “As part of this commitment, I have leveraged all of my influence—from private meetings in the Oval Office in the president’s first week in office to my latest trip to Bears Ears this week—to ensure that this issue is a priority on the president’s agenda.”
More than 20 years ago, Hatch also railed against Clinton’s Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument designation, calling it the “mother of all land grabs.”
New Mexico’s Rep. Steve Pearce, R, also opposed Obama’s national monument designations, including Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, which is within his southern New Mexico district.
Obama designated that 500,000-acre monument in 2014.
Pearce disapproved, though he had earlier introduced a bill to Congress that, if passed, would have created a smaller, 60,000-acre monument.
NM Political Report reached out to Pearce’s office to learn if he has encouraged the Trump administration to roll back the monument in southern New Mexico.
Pearce, who serves on the House Resources Committee, did not have time on Tuesday for an interview, but his office emailed a statement:
The Congressman believes that the President has full authority to review and make modifications to national monuments under the Antiquities Act. This has been done a number of times under previous Presidents. Congressman Pearce continues to support the multiple use of federal lands and believes local communities and citizens who are affected by the management of these lands should be allowed to provide input.
Related story: Pearce named to Natural Resources Committee
The executive order and anti-monument sentiment is “absurd,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “It’s fear-mongering and it’s misinformation,” he said.
VeneKlasen has a dog in the game, in part because sportsmen were the driving force to include some of the lands beyond those included in Pearce’s proposal, he said, which only included the Organ Peaks, the picturesque and jagged mountain range that frames the city of Las Cruces on its east side. Sportsmen also wanted the federal government to protect areas like the Uvas Mountains, home to game animals like mule deer and javelina, from development.
He also pointed out that while the monument is protected from future development, it’s still as accessible as it always was. “I can still drive my truck, or an ATV, on designated routes, to go hunting,” he said.
“It’s important for people to realize that monuments in other states are all our monuments,” he said. “Bears Ears and Browns Canyon [in Colorado] are just as important as Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Monument. These are our children’s monuments.”
Trump’s executive order may not rest on solid legal ground. The Antiquities Act gives presidents the authority to designate national monuments. But no law gives presidents the ability to modify or revoke national monuments, said Mark Squillace, professor at the University of Colorado Law School.
Zinke: review was “long overdue”
During a Tuesday afternoon press briefing, Zinke called the directive to review of Antiquities Act designations from the past two decades “long overdue.” He also said Trump’s order would restore trust between local communities and Washington D.C.
Zinke has repeatedly called himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” referring to himself as a conservationist. And he stuck to that during the press conference:
Up front, I’m a Teddy Roosevelt guy. And so I think, when the Antiquities Act came out, I think we should all recognize that, by and large, the Antiquities Act and the monuments that we have protected have done a great service to the public and are some of our most treasured lands in this country. So this is an enormous responsibility I have to make recommendations that are appropriate, that follow the law. But no one loves our public lands more than I. You could love them as much, but you can’t love them more than I do. And that’s one of the reasons why I love my job.
Trump’s executive order came days after Zinke announced that a record number of people visited the nation’s 417 National Parks.
According to the agency’s annual economics report, national parks contributed $34.9 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016, a $2.9 billion increase over the previous year. The report also found that visitors to the parks supported 318,000 jobs last year, including in hospitality, retail, transportation and recreation.
The report looked at 14 of New Mexico’s national parks and monuments. Altogether, they experienced more than 1.8 million visits and accounted for 1,654 jobs. The most popularly visited parks are White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns, Bandelier, El Malpais and Petroglyph National Monument.
Meanwhile, New Mexico has the highest unemployment rate in the nation.
This week, the Outdoor Industry Association also released a report saying the outdoor economy drives $887 billion in consumer spending and supports 7.6 million jobs nationwide. The industry encompasses everything from off-road vehicles and biking to camping, hiking and birdwatching. According to the report, more Americans are directly employed by hunting and fishing (483,000 jobs) than by oil and gas extraction (180,000).
Between 2015 and 2016, visitation to Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks doubled. And in the year following Obama’s designation of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, lodgers tax revenue in Taos increased by 21 percent, and gross receipts revenue grew by 8.3 percent.