President Donald Trump is poised to begin unraveling his predecessors' public lands legacy, and may ultimately redefine the federal government's relationship to the American West in the process.
On Wednesday, Trump will sign an executive order demanding the Department of the Interior review national monument designations from the last two decades. The goal of the review is to determine if any monuments should be changed or rescinded — a legally murky prospect that has never been test in the courts.
In a call Tuesday evening with reporters, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Trump's order would include all monuments created since January 1996 that cover at least 100,000 acres.
"The order will direct me to review prior monument designations and suggest legislative changes and modifications," Zinke said during Tuesday's call.
The Interior secretary said between 25 and 40 monuments created by former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton will be reviewed. There is no predetermined outcome for the review, Zinke repeatedly said.
Nevertheless, observers on both sides of the aisle view the order as the first step of a potentially dramatic course change for the federal government. During a speech on the Senate floor Monday, Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah described it as "reining in the abuse of authority under the Antiquities Act," the 1906 law presidents use to create the park-like national monuments.
Conversely, Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee, raised the prospect during a call Tuesday that the review could lead to monuments being rescinded — a move he described as "an attack once again on Indian country."
While changes stemming from Trump's order may not be immediate, they could have a profound impact on the West. Among the most pressing is a series of designations President Obama made in the final months of his term, the most controversial being Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.
Conservationists hailed the designation, but local lawmakers and conservatives blasted it as an example of presidential overreach that will have dire impacts on the local economy. The creation of Bears Ears helped Obama secure his legacy-building distinction of setting aside more land and water than any other president in US history.
Zinke said Tuesday that Bears Ears will be first up for review, and the primary subject of a report scheduled to be completed in 45 days. The entire review will take 120 days.
Though the outcome of the review is still unknown, Trump's intended executive order indicates the administration has Obama's monument designations — which include vast expanses in Nevada, California, and the Pacific Ocean — in its line of fire.
The scope of the order also means there could be major changes coming to older national monuments such as Grand Staircase-Escalante, created by President Clinton in 1996. Utah lawmakers have been pushing in recent months to shrink the size of that monument as well.
During a conference call Tuesday, New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich — a Democrat who supported President Obama's final monument designations — said he believes the two decade timeline was "carefully crafted to sort of pick up with Grand Staircase-Escalante."
Eliminating or altering decades worth of national monuments could have a major impact on the mostly rural communities in their orbit, many of which would like to see the land used for other purposes such as grazing, mining, or logging.
But the larger issue is the Antiquities Act itself. Western lawmakers have been pushing hard to weaken the law, and Hatch's comment about "reining" it in suggests that agenda remains active. If that were to happen, it could reduce the ability of future presidents to create national monuments in the first place — a boon to local communities that feel strangled by regulation but a blow to conservationists who view the West as threatened by human activity.
Efforts to weaken the Antiquities Act, however, could also meet resistance.
Friends of Gold Butte, which supported Obama's southern Nevada monument designation, told BuzzFeed News it opposes "any attempts to reduce the scope or influence of the Antiquities Act."
"Many thousands of Nevadans and Americans supported permanent protection for this land," Executive Director Jaina Moan said in an email. "Gold Butte is truly one of America’s treasures of antiquity. It needed and deserved the national monument designation and the use of the Antiquities Act was appropriate."
Heinrich said he anticipates pushback to any potential change to existing national monuments, saying during Tuesday's conference call that Trump could "find a very resistant public."
For his part, Zinke spoke positively about the Antiquities Act — suggesting the Trump administration may not be as friendly to western lawmakers' agenda as they have hoped.
"By and large the Antiquities Act and the monuments we have protected have done a great service to the public and are some of our most treasured lands in the country," Zinke said.
The Interior secretary said he was against transferring public land to states, a move some western lawmakers have recently pushed for.
For now, it remains unclear how aggressive the Trump administration will be in dismantling Obama's public lands legacy and weakening the Antiquities Act. But one thing is now certain: change is coming.
"In President Trump we have a leader who is committed to defending the Western way of life," Hatch added Monday in the Senate. "I am deeply grateful for his willingness to work with us to undo the harm caused."
Jim Dalrymple is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Jim Dalrymple II at email@example.com.
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