Outrage After Zinke Memo Reveals Unprecedented Assault on Public Lands

Multiple groups have threatened to take the president to court if he acts on proposals from the Interior Department to reduce federal protections for 10 national monuments, including Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. (Photo: Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management/Flickr/cc)

Outrage After Zinke Memo Reveals Unprecedented Assault on Public Lands

"We will not allow these special lands and waters to be handed over to private interests for drilling, commercial fishing, logging, and other extraction."

Conservationists are outraged by Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke's proposal--as outlined in a memo to President Donald Trump that was leaked by media outlets late Sunday--to revoke or alter federal protections for at least 10 national monuments and expose protected lands and waters to commercial activity.

"If President Trump accepts Zinke's advice, and moves to eviscerate monument protections, he'd be ignoring the law--and the will of the American people," said Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) president Rhea Suh, who also vowed to fight the changes in court, should the president act on the secretary's suggestions. Suh was not alone in her charge that it would be illegal for the president to make the proposed changes.

"Acting on these recommendations would represent an unprecedented assault on our parks and public lands, and undermine bipartisan progress to protect our lands and waters that dates to Theodore Roosevelt," said Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society. "We believe the Trump administration has no legal authority to alter or erase protections for national treasures." Williams also promised to battle "these illegal and dangerous recommendations" in court, if Trump acts on them.

In April, the president ordered Zinke to review 27 monuments--all larger than 100,000 acres--that have been granted federal protections under the Antiquities Act since 1996, claiming that his predecessors went too far when designating certain U.S. lands and waters as protected from commercial activity. Zinke's leaked 19-page memo (pdf) follows a two-page summary (pdf) the department released in late August, which also garnered intense criticism from conservationists.

"It appears that certain monuments were designated to prevent economic activity such as grazing, mining, and timber production rather than to protect specific objects," the memo reads. Although it notes that "comments received were overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments," the vocal resistance to rolling back protections for national monuments seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

Zinke suggests shrinking borders for four land monuments, potentially leaving thousands or even millions of acres of land vulnerable to mining, logging, and types of other development. He also wants to see commercial fishing return to two marine monuments, including the Pacific Remote Islands, the world's largest marine reserve.

"We will not allow these special lands and waters to be handed over to private interests for drilling, commercial fishing, logging, and other extraction," added Suh of NRDC.

Among the most controversial proposed changes are to two massive monuments in Utah that together total more than 3.2 million acres. The Associated Press reports:

Bears Ears, designated for federal protection by former President Barack Obama, totals 1.3 million acres in southeastern Utah on land that is sacred to Native Americans and home to tens of thousands of archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings. Grand Staircase-Escalante, in southern Utah, includes nearly 1.9 million acres in a sweeping vista larger than the state of Delaware.

Grand Staircase has been a source of ire for local officials and Republican leaders for more than two decades amid complaints that its 1996 designation as a monument by former President Bill Clinton closed off too much land to development.

Zinke's leaked memo targets only 10 of the 27 reviewed monuments:

  • Bears Ears in Utah
  • Cascade Siskiyou in Oregon
  • Gold Butte in Nevada
  • Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah
  • Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine
  • Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, off New England
  • Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in New Mexico
  • Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument
  • Rio Grande Del Norte in New Mexico
  • Rose Atoll Marine National Monument
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