A Monumental Mistake

On April 26, 2017, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13792, otherwise known as the Presidential Executive Order on the Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act. This executive order tasked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke with reviewing “all Presidential designations or expansions of designations under the Antiquities Act made since January 1, 1996,” where the designation is larger than 100,000 acres or where “the designation or expansion was made without adequate public outreach,” to determine whether they should be altered. Why does this matter, and what is the Antiquities Act anyway?


The Bully Pulpit

The American Antiquities Act of 1906 (16 USC 431-433), signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, allows Presidents to “declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments.” This law has been used broadly since its inception to protect vast swathes of American territory, both on land and undersea, including such well-known landmarks as the Statue of Liberty, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (the first such monument to be protected under the Act), the Grand Canyon, and the Muir Woods in California.

Grand Canyon - Old
Grand Canyon, circa early 1900s.     Image credit: Huckberry.

Roosevelt was an avid proponent of the Antiquities Act and his wide-ranging use of its powers has informed future Presidents’ use of the Act. He established a clear precedent for succeeding Presidents to follow, as he established monuments with a variety of purposes, using the entirety of the Act’s text to justify them; Roosevelt proclaimed monuments under historic, scientific, cultural, scenic, and archaeological reasoning and created monuments of vastly differing sizes (from 120 acres to over 60,000 acres). His monument declaration for the Grand Canyon was successfully defended in a court challenge (Cameron v. US) brought by a then-US Senator from Arizona who was one of many developers Roosevelt tried to dissuade from building in the canyon. These acts by the President, including the successful defense of his Grand Canyon proclamation, created a clear path for future Presidents to follow, from his successor President Taft through President Obama.

Now, however, President Trump has asked his Interior Secretary to review certain monument designations through the Executive Order mentioned earlier. That process has finished and Secretary Zinke has sent a memorandum to the President with his initial recommendations. To properly understand and assess the suggestions made by the Secretary, we first need to delve into his prior career and understand the frame of reference and biases Mr. Zinke brings to the table.

The Man Behind the Memo

Until nominated by President Trump and confirmed by a 67 – 31 margin in the Senate, Republican Ryan Zinke was Montana’s lone Congressman. Zinke served a single (full) term in Congress, from 2015 through his appointment to the Interior post in 2017, although he was reelected to his seat in the interim during the 2016 election cycle. Prior to his service in the House of Representatives, he was a state Senator in Montana from 2009 to his time in the House, and was a decorated Navy SEAL before entering politics. In the House, he served on the Natural Resources Committee, which gave him some relevant experience for the Interior Secretary position, besides representing Montana, a state with a large amount of federal land including both a National Park and National Monument.

I did not want to touch on Zinke’s previous career just for fun; his prior political history is important in understanding how he sees the issues facing National Monuments today. The most critical things to analyze here are the major industry groups that contributed to his campaign and leadership PACs in the most recent election cycle, as these industries and their contributions may help shape Zinke’s thinking on the issues. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Zinke was a major recipient of contributions from the Energy & Natural Resources sector ($285,044), Agribusiness sector ($173,453), and Gun Rights lobby ($79,068). In fact, Zinke was the second largest recipient of contributions from the Gun Rights lobby in the entire 435-member House of Representatives, only trailing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan on that front. (Nice job, Secretary.) Keep these industries in mind when reading Secretary Zinke’s arguments for altering the current National Monuments, as they seem to play a significant role in his thinking.

Context is Key

In Section II of the memo, labeled ‘Results’, Secretary Zinke gets it wrong on a broad level; this is largely due to his lack of context (historical and otherwise), and our understanding of the context in which Zinke himself resides.

In the first part of Section II of the memo, labeled “A. Broadly and Arbitrarily Defined ‘Objects’”, Secretary Zinke lays out his argument that the Antiquities Act was primarily meant for “the proper stewardship of objects,” taking a very specific reading of the Act, which uses the term “objects” throughout its text as shorthand to describe the “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” which may be protected by the Act. In Zinke’s memo, he argues that “objects are not consistently and clearly defined,” and that “there are other areas, not part of a monument, which contain virtually identical objects.” In this, he is missing the point. The “objects” being protected not only include the specific historic or cultural artifacts which may be found within the protected area, but the protected area itself. He also notes that he “has seen examples of objects not clearly defined in the proclamations,” such as geographic landmarks, ecosystems, biodiversity, and more. To him, these are not specific “objects” and thus fall outside the realm of the Act. As discussed earlier, however, the intent of the Act and its initial usage by President Theodore Roosevelt directly counters Zinke’s incredibly limited understanding. Roosevelt protected the Grand Canyon explicitly due to it being “an object of unusual scientific interest, being the greatest eroded canyon within the United States,” which would be too general for Zinke’s liking.

Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.jpg
Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, the first monument specifically dedicated to protect biodiversity.    Image credit: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou

In section C, labeled “Traditional Uses Limited”, Zinke decries the fact that “certain monuments were designated to prevent economic activity such as grazing, mining, and timber production rather than to protect specific objects.” Secretary Zinke is essentially claiming that monument designations are not intended to protect important sites, but instead to curtail economic activity within those sites. I contend that those objectives are not mutually exclusive and are, in fact, mutually reinforcing. Let me explain. A major issue with protection of historic or cultural artifacts is dealing with access to the lands on which these artifacts reside; curtailment or restriction of economic activity such as mining, ranching, or motorized travel avoids damage to these important sites, thus protecting the artifacts. The same is true for an area being protected for its scenic importance; I highly doubt the Grand Canyon would be as beautiful as it is if there were a massive strip mine within its center.  Zinke also makes the argument throughout his memo that hunting and fishing rights should be significantly expanded, including in areas currently protected specifically for their biodiversity. This should be seen as a naked giveaway to his friends in the gun rights lobby, who boost sales through promotion of hunting and have lavished Zinke’s campaigns with cash. This economic curtailment, although unfortunate for some industries in local areas, is both required for protection of national monuments and their contents and offers new opportunities for different economic activities, like tourism.

Part D of the Results section, titled “Concerns of State, Tribal, and Local Governments”, deals primarily with the contentious issue of land rights and the federal government’s role in the ownership and stewardship of the lands we all own as American citizens. Many of the concerns here are legitimate, especially those brought up by Native American tribes when it comes to joint management of important cultural and religious sites. However, I am far less conciliatory when it comes to the concerns of state and local governments; many of these concerns relate to inadequate economic development potential on federal lands. National Monuments and other federal protective designations do an important public good: they force us to take a longer-term view of the usefulness of our federal lands, what we wish to do with them, and how we wish to pass them on to future generations. Short-term gains brought on by brief economic booms from resource extraction will pale in comparison to the eternal loss of our wilderness and cultural treasures. By opening up these lands to extractive industries, widespread ranching, and excessive motorized transportation, we will not be doing our job of being good stewards of the land for our descendants. Again, this is an area where Zinke’s campaign finance records shine an incredibly useful light; he received major contributions from the extractive industries as well as from agribusiness, which includes livestock ranching, timber, and commercial fishing. His recommendations on the economic front cannot be properly understood without this crucial context.

Monuments Under Siege

Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument
The ‘Wave’ at Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument.    Image credit: National Park Photography Expedition
  • Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument
    • Location: Southern Utah
    • Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument, established in 1996, is the oldest monument reviewed by Secretary Zinke. He argues that it was partially protected prior to its designation, supposedly offering adequate supervision over the threatened objects within. He states that there was no public outreach done beforehand (which I agree with, although the criticism is about 20 years late), and that ranching is declining as the secondary activities needed to support grazing are prohibited. I contend that this is a good thing, as a gradual reduction in grazing is what should be done to properly protect the land in the monument. Zinke also wants to open up many now-closed roads which are the subjects of myriad lawsuits brought by state and local officials; there is currently a review of those closures in-progress which I think should be completed without the consideration of the lawsuits being involved. Finally, Zinke contends that “areas encompassed within [the monument] contain an estimated several billion tons of coal and large oil deposits,” and wishes to allow their extraction. According to Utah’s 2015 Report to the Governor, “coal production in 2014 is still near a 30-year low, as demand in Nevada and California diminishes as coal plants convert to natural gas,” clearly demonstrating that the value of the coal locked underneath the monument is not worth the destruction that harvesting it would require. Although that same report says Utah’s oil production was increasing, current 2017 crude oil prices are far lower than they were in 2014 and thus oil exploration in the area would hardly be worthwhile. Also, the economic value of tourism in the southern Utah region, where this monument is located, is far more than any extractive industry would provide; in the counties in which the monument resides, tourism accounts for an average of nearly 50% of all private sector jobs, and improving access to this area and advertising it further as a tourist destination will only increase this positive trend.
  • Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument
    • Location: Southern Oregon & Northern California
    • The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, originally established in 2000, was the first monument to specifically protect biodiversity. Ryan Zinke doesn’t like that. He also dislikes the fact that part of the monument encloses private lands, some of which were used for timber production. Some of the federal lands within the monument were initially used by the government as timber-producing lands and generated for the Bureau of Land Management approximately 4 to 6 million board feet of timber each year (remember this figure, it is important). Secretary Zinke doesn’t like that either. I thought losing 4 to 6 million board feet a year sounded like a serious problem and something that should be heavily weighed when thinking about this monument designation…until I reviewed the US Department of Agriculture’s research report on timber production in the US. In 2011, the US generated over 30 billion board feet of timber. In a single year! In that context, 4 to 6 million is a drop in the bucket; in fact, it’s only 0.02% of the annual timber yield of the United States. I’d say that’s an eminently reasonable price to pay for respecting and protecting biodiversity.
  • Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument
    • Location: Central Maine
    • The Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is an interesting case for a few reasons, not least of which is that it is land that was privately donated to the federal government with the express intent of creating a national park or monument, open to the public and protected from harm. Secretary Zinke also did not recommend any changes to the size of the monument, making this a unique case. The changes that the Secretary did recommend, however, were quite controversial; there emerged strong opponents of the suggestions, as well as fierce backers of the memo. What Zinke recommended was to allow more “traditional uses” of the land, such as snowmobiling, hunting, and timbering, all of which are longstanding community use cases for local land areas. Currently, the monument allows for some of these uses, especially timbering; the federal government already manages “the forest for the resource’s health.” The phrase that sparked the controversy in Maine was “active timber management,” which is often associated with commercial timber harvesting and not simply managing the forest’s health and ensuring proper growth and maintenance. Commercial harvesting is currently prohibited, but many industry advocates want that ban lifted; recall that Congressman Zinke received large contributions from Agribusiness, including forestry companies. The opening of Katahdin to “active timber management”, or commercial lumber harvesting, would be devastating to the monument and a clear slap in the face to the legacy of the land’s donation.
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument
Mount Katahdin   Image credit: George Wuerthner
  • Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument
    • Location: Off Southeast coast of Cape Cod
    • Marine monuments are also in Zinke’s crosshairs, and have compelling reasons for protection. Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, off the Atlantic coast of Cape Cod, was protected for the express purpose of preserving the area’s incredibly rich biodiversity and geological features. The monument is home to large populations of marine mammals, migratory seabirds (including some endangered species), ancient corals, octopi, and more. The area is a rich feeding ground for animals of all sorts, including sperm whales, sharks, tuna, and dolphins. Secretary Zinke believes that the protection of this diverse habitat irreparably harms the commercial fishing industry (agribusiness again!), despite the absence of factual evidence. His argument relies on the objections of the New England Fisheries Council during the public comment period for the monument’s creation, and he takes them and their constituents’ arguments at face value. Consider the case of SeaFreeze, a seafood company in Boston, which commented to a Congressman regarding the monument that it “could cost $500 million and ‘countless jobs.’” This company, as well as the Fisheries Council, is clearly biased; the Fisheries Council itself is packed to the gills with representatives of the commercial seafood industry, whether in marketing, sales, or harvesting of seafood. Their objections should be taken with a large grain of salt, especially as they have provided no data to back up their assertions.
  • Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument
    • Location: Southern New Mexico
    • The Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument raises concerns for Zinke largely due to its sensitive location: the monument is located near a military installation and abuts the US – Mexico border near El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. The Secretary believes this monument’s location could pose a threat to military readiness, as well as making it more challenging for enforcement of border security given the remoteness of the area and restrictions on motorized travel. I disagree with his assertions. For one, there are national monuments and parks close to military bases around the country, and none of these seem to affect readiness. With respect to border security and drug trafficking, I defer to the US Border Patrol, which issued a letter supporting the monument designation in 2014, stating it would “significantly enhance the flexibility” of agents to patrol the designated area in comparison to before.

Secretary Zinke’s recommendations aren’t all bad, however. In his memo, he makes several reasonable requests, especially his repeated advocacy for improved cooperation with Native American communities. He recommends tribal co-management of many of the national monuments mentioned in the memo, particularly those with special relevance to Native groups, like Bears Ears and Rio Grande del Norte. I think this is an excellent idea, as it will allow tribes to have better access to and control over sacred and important historic sites and cultural relics, as well as ease some of the supervisory burden on the federal government. Zinke also suggests simplifying the byzantine maze of bureaucracy which currently manages these monuments, and I heartily concur. Making this structure flatter and easier to deal with would likely help solve many of the concerns Zinke raises in his memo. Lastly, he recommends to President Trump the creation of 3 new national monuments to celebrate and preserve the history and culture of African American and Native American people within the United States. His ideas for monuments at the Medgar Evers Home in Mississippi, Camp Nelson in Kentucky, and the Badger-Two Medicine Area in Montana are good and should be put through a comment process and then added to the list of national monuments where they belong.

Still, adding these new monuments and making good recommendations when it comes to running the bureaucracy fall far short of the mark when viewed in light of the awful judgments made by Secretary Zinke in the rest of his 19-page memo to the President. Our National Monuments deserve protection and care, not shrinkage, privatization, and desecration for extractive profit-making purposes. These are our lands, the lands we all collectively own, and we need to act like it.

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