WASHINGTON — For anyone following the Trump administration’s months-long review of America’s national monuments, Friday likely felt like the punchline to a joke they’d already heard.
Six months after signing a pair of executive orders threatening the future of 27 national monuments, President Donald Trump reportedly phoned Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to inform him that he would follow through on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recommendation to shrink Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.35 million-acre area in southern Utah that President Barack Obama declared a national monument in 2016.
“I’m approving the Bears Ears recommendation for you, Orrin,” Trump reportedly told the senator, according to The Washington Post. Hatch, who has called the monument a “travesty,” said the call left him feeling “incredibly grateful.”
The site is named after a pair of buttes and is home to thousands of Native American archaeological and cultural sites. It has been at the center of the monuments controversy, and Trump requested an expedited, 45-day review. It remains unclear how many acres the administration plans to strip from the monument, although the state is reportedly pushing for a 90 percent reduction.
Friday’s news drew national headlines and sparked fresh outrage from the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group of five Native American tribes that petitioned to grant the area monument status.
“We have not been contacted with regard to changes to
#BearsEars,” the group tweeted Tuesday.
But the news was not a surprise.
Seemingly every comment and action the administration made leading up to Friday had suggested Bears Ears was headed for the chopping block, and that the review — at least for this particular monument — was mostly for show.
Consider the day Trump signed his executive order. Standing below a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt — Zinke’s hero and the president who more than a century ago signed into law the Antiquities Act, which 16 presidents have used to designate 157 monuments — Trump spoke as if stripping protections from Bears Ears was already a done deal. He boasted that he was ending “another egregious abuse of federal power,” putting “states back in charge” and opening up now-protected areas to “tremendously positive things.” He said the designation of Bears Ears was made “over the profound objections of the citizens of Utah” and “should never have happened.” And he praised Hatch for his “never-ending prodding” on the issue.
″[Hatch] would call me and call me and say, ‘You got to do this,’” Trump said. “Is that right, Orrin? You didn’t stop. He doesn’t give up. He’s shocked that I’m doing it, but I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”
“We’re now getting something done that many people thought would never, ever get done,” Trump added.
Zinke insisted early on that “there is no predetermined outcome on any monument.” But like Trump, he has consistently criticized recent monument designations, suggesting Bears Ears and other monuments wouldn’t survive intact. The Antiquities Act has “become a tool of political advocacy rather than public interest,” he said in April.
In the week after Trump signed the monument order, Zinke met with Utah’s delegation and the San Juan County Commission — vocal monument opponents — to discuss next steps. Feeling ignored, members of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition traveled to Washington to demand the administration’s ear, claiming neither Trump nor anyone on his team had consulted, or even spoken with, them.
A week later, Zinke traveled to Utah as part of a monuments “listening tour,” where he spent four days visiting Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante — another monument slated to be trimmed. Monument opponents, including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) and members of the San Juan County Commission, joined him on the Bears Ears tour. Representatives of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which backed it, were given a one-hour meeting with the Interior Department chief.
Zinke said during the tour that he believed Bears Ears should be preserved, but “the issue is whether the monument is the right vehicle.”
“It is public land,” he said. “It was public land before the monument. It will be public land after the monument. What vehicle of public land is appropriate to preserve the cultural identity, to make sure the tribes have a voice and to make sure you protect the traditions of hunting and fishing and public access?”
That same month, the Interior Department denied reports that Zinke had already made up his mind and would recommend abolishing Bears Ears. E&E News reported that San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman said Zinke disclosed his plans during a meeting with the commission earlier that month. Lyman later told HuffPost that E&E News had misquoted him and that he didn’t say Zinke would definitely recommend abolishing the monument. However, Lyman said, “there’s no question” the Trump administration is “moving in a certain direction” and that “my impression is he’d like to rescind it.”
Along with giving more time to Bears Ears opponents, the administration appears to have based the entire review on cherry-picked data. The Interior Department has claimed that since the Antiquities Act became law, “the average size of national monuments exploded from an average of 422 acres per monument” and that “now it’s not uncommon for a monument to be more than a million acres.”
In 1908, two years after the Antiquities Act became law, Roosevelt — of whom Zinke is an “unapologetic admirer and disciple” — designated more than 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon as a national monument. Only a few Obama-era land monuments are larger. Roosevelt also designated the 20,629-acre Chaco Canyon National Monument and the 610,000-acre Mount Olympus National Monument. Republican presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover both designated monuments of over a million acres. Coolidge set aside Alaska’s Glacier Bay in 1925, and Hoover set aside California’s Death Valley in 1933.
The Interior Department has yet to explain its 422-acre figure, despite HuffPost’s numerous requests.
The review process has also seemingly ignored overwhelming public support for keeping Bears Ears and other monuments intact. An analysis from the Center for Western Priorities found that 99 percent of the more than 685,000 public comments submitted during a 15-day comment period voiced support for Bears Ears. In a report summary made public in August, Zinke said the overwhelming support for maintaining current monuments was the result of “a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations.”
There is no legal precedent that establishes the president’s authority to abolish, shrink or otherwise weaken national monuments. Congress, not the president, has sole legal power to rescind or weaken protections for monuments designated under the Antiquities Act, four legal scholars concluded in June. Area tribes and other groups have vowed to sue if and when Trump makes an official announcement.
Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, did not mince words about Trump’s looming decision on Bears Ears: “It should be clear this ‘review’ was a sham designed to let rich companies get richer off our public lands and settle grudges against Presidents Obama and Clinton,” he said in a statement Friday.
In a video advertisement the National Wildlife Federation released on Thursday, a day ahead of Trump’s phone calls to Hatch and Herbert, Navajo Nation delegate Davis Filfred pleads with Trump not to alter Bears Ears and other national monuments.
“Not all monuments divide us. Some bring us together,” Filfred says. “If you destroy these monuments, our public land could be auctioned off. Our sacred tribal sites would be in danger.”
Zinke has recommended shrinking or otherwise weakening at least 10 existing national monuments, according to a leaked copy of the report Zinke submitted to the White House in late August.