September 18, 2017

Despite public support, Zinke recommends changes to NM’s national monuments


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

National media outlets released a leaked copy of the national monument review submitted by U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to the White House in August.

Screenshots of the document, labeled as “Draft Deliberative – Not for Distribution,” were released Sunday night.

The 19-page report Zinke sent to President Trump includes recommendations about the two national monuments up for review in New Mexico, Rio Grande del Norte near Taos and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces.

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Widely expected to recommend changes to Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, Zinke’s review also calls for “amendments” to Rio Grande del Norte.

His review doesn’t include specific details or boundary changes to either monument. Rather, the half-page recommendations for each of New Mexico’s monuments include boilerplate bullet points about prioritizing “public access” and revising the area’s resource management plan to continue to protect traditional use, tribal use and hunting and fishing rights.

In his recommendations for Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, Zinke also directs the Interior Department to work with the Department of Homeland Security to “assess border safety risks associated with the Portrillos Mountains Complex” and the U.S. Department of Defense to “assess operational readiness of nearby military installations.”

Of Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, the secretary writes: “Grazing is a significant traditional use in RGDNNM. However, road closures due to monument restrictions have left many grazing permittees choosing not to renew permits.” But he does not offer specific changes to the president.

Zinke also recommends that Trump request congressional authority to enable tribal management of designated cultural areas at both monuments.

Republican Rep. Steve Pearce, the lone congressional delegate from New Mexico to support Zinke’s review process, issued a statement Monday morning saying the secretary’s recommendation “fails to provide the solutions New Mexico needs.”

According to Pearce:

This decision blatantly ignores local businesses, Border Patrol agents, and outdoorsmen to protect sites that should not be protected under the Antiquities Act. The Secretary even mentioned the WWII bombing craters in his summary as one of the more egregious examples of an over-expansive monuments – yet he left these ranges in the Monument. Even as a former Air Force pilot, I fail to see any value protecting this land over supporting historical ranching and economic growth. The Antiquities Act makes it clear that protected sites must be of historic or scientific interest, yet the OMDP is home to hundreds of thousands of acres without legitimate purpose.

In New Mexico, supporters of the monuments included conservationists, sportsmen and recreationists, local governments and businesses in both northern and and southern New Mexico and traditional and tribal communities.

Related: Park Service group to feds: ‘Pendulum is swinging too far to the side of development’

More than 2.4 million people submitted comments to the department during Zinke’s review of the 27 monuments nationwide.

According to Zinke’s report to Trump, public comment could be divided into two groups. He offered this synopsis of arguments in support of protecting the boundaries of the monuments:

Proponents tended to promote monument designation as a mechanism to prevent the sale or transfer of public land. This narrative is false and has no basis in fact. Public lands within a monument are federally owned and managed regardless of monument designation under the Act. Proponents also point to the economic benefits from increased tourism from monument recognition. On this point, monument status has a potential economic benefit of increased visitation, particularly to service related industries, outdoor recreation industries, and other businesses dependent or supported by tourism. Increased visitation also places an additional burden and responsibility on the Federal Government to provide additional resources and manpower to maintain these lands to better support increased visitation and recreational activities.

Zinke then reiterated language similar to that in the one-and-a-half page summary released publicly last month, writing that comments in favor of preserving the monuments “demonstrated a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations.”

Presidents have the authority to create national monuments under the federal Antiquities Act. Signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the law gave presidents the authority to bypass Congress and protect federal lands that contain archaeological or historical sites or are scientifically significant. In the last 110 years, sixteen presidents, including eight Republicans and eight Democrats, have used the act to designate national monuments.

In April, President Trump signed an executive order directing Zinke to review monuments presidents had designated under the act since 1996 that are larger than 100,000acres.

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.”

As we reported in August, during the four month review, Zinke visited eight national monuments in six states, including New Mexico. His office said the review included more than 60 meetings, “tours of monuments conducted over air, foot, car and horseback” and a “thorough review” of more than 2.4 million public comments that had been submitted to the department.

More than 90 percent of comments submitted from New Mexicans supported protecting monuments, including the two under review here in the state, Rio Grande del Norte near Taos and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in southern New Mexico.

NM Political Report will have follow-up coverage on the issue later in the week.