Presidents have quite a bit of federal authority when it comes to creating national monuments, and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama put that power to use in Utah, creating federal protections for millions of acres of public land.
Donald Trump announced yesterday he’s undoing some of those protections, shrinking the Bears Ears monument in Utah from 1.3 million acres to about 220,000 acres of federally protected land, and reducing Grand Staircase-Escalante from 1.9 million acres to a little over 1 million acres.
That’s nearly 2 million acres of protected public land that the Republican president decided to give away yesterday. One of Trump’s cabinet secretaries defended the move with a curious talking point.
Before the ceremony, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told The Salt Lake Tribune “The president is delivering on his campaign promise to give the state and local communities a voice, which I think is absolutely important. Public lands are for public use and not for special interests.”
It seemed possible that Zinke misspoke, but he used identical language yesterday in a separate interview: “Public land is for public use and not special interests.”
I realize when it comes to the Trump administration, some up-is-down rhetoric is to be expected, but even by 2017 standards, this is disorienting.
Note, for example, that during the president’s speech yesterday while unveiling the new federal policy, Trump complained about “harmful and unnecessary restrictions” on, among other things, “responsible economic development.” Indeed, Reuters reported in April that when Trump signed an executive order earlier this year to allow national monument designations to be rescinded or reduced, the White House was pushing “to open up more federal land to drilling, mining and other development.”
The New Republic’s Emily Atkin added yesterday that Bears Ears, in particular, “is in the industry’s sights.”
This summer, a Tribune investigation found that oil and gas interests “hope to tap hydrocarbon deposits under parts of the Bears Ears region that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may soon recommend removing from the monument.” Specifically, the Tribune found that industry has been eyeing a 2.7-million-acre area called the San Juan County Energy Zone, which the Utah legislature had previously been considering to open up to the industry. Much of that area became off limits when former President Barack Obama proclaimed Bears Ears a monument in December 2016.
Public land advocate Randi Spivak told the Tribune that drilling in Bears Ears was “a clear and present danger,” and that “the only thing staying in the way is monument status.”
Now, according to Trump, it’s time for that monument status to end.
It’s against this backdrop that Ryan Zinke wants Americans to believe that public lands are “not for special interests.” If he and the Trump administration were protecting federal lands from mining and drilling, that argument might make sense.
But they appear to be taking steps in the exact opposite direction.