When President Trump signed a proclamation in December to reduce the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah, he spurred a heated discussion on the goals and objectives of federal land management. What once was an issue of interest only to Western states has now hit the national scene. But, all this controversy can be averted by simply returning to the original intent of the Antiquities Act concerning national monuments.
After a review process, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently recommended changes to 10 national monuments, including reductions in size of six and changes to the management of four others. President Trump took initial action on Secretary Zinke’s recommendations by reducing the size of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, from 1.35 million to 201,876 acres — an 85 percent reduction — and the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument from 1.7 million to 1 million acres — a 46 percent decrease.
President Trump’s actions prompted a flurry of predictably extreme reactions. On one side, he was praised for returning access to Bears Ears back to locals and Utah’s Navajos, who believed that the monument-creation process had excluded their voices from management decisions and restricted access to traditional resources and uses of the land. On the other side, progressive and green interests attacked the Trump administration as “evil” and called Utah’s state legislators “wackos” for supporting the changes. They claimed that the reduction in the size of the monuments had effectively “stolen” public lands.
The reactions mirrored what happened when the Bears Ears monument had been rushed into existence in the final days of the Obama administration last year.
These extreme reactions show why local input is needed when millions of acres are set aside for protection. They also highlight the need for Congress to ensure the Antiquities Act, which governs the creation of these monuments, is refocused back to its original scope.
The act was created in 1906, with the intent of protecting native artifacts and archaeological sites from plunder. It empowers a president to protect “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.” The act also specifically limits this presidential authority by mandating that they only set aside “the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
The spirit of the law clearly intended for monument designations to protect specific and limited areas. But more recent designations have stretched the application of the act well beyond its original intent, attempting to turn it into a tool for landscape-scale conservation measures. The Obama administration took extreme liberties with this newer interpretation by using it to establish 29 national monuments that made up more than 553 million acres. Trump administration officials claim the area reductions in Utah are more in line with the intent of the Antiquities Act and will return these areas to the people of Utah.
Seesawing designations and confusion over the exact areas being set aside puts management of these monuments into a state of political limbo. If monument boundaries can change after each presidential election, proper management and planning quickly become impossible as they are replaced with increasingly strident political attacks. Our national monuments deserve to be respected as much more than just political footballs, punted back and forth with each change of presidential administration.
To restore essential checks and balances, the original intent of the legislation should be reinforced. Few would argue against giving a president the ability to protect endangered archeological, cultural and scientific treasures. But if an area targeted for designation as a national monument is expected to be larger than several hundred acres, the designation should require the approval of Congress, as well as the state legislature and governor of the area to be set aside.
This simple idea would continue to allow for the protection of sensitive national treasures, while also ensuring the people most affected by the designation of national monuments have meaningful input into the management of the places they call home.
Jason Hayes is director of Environmental Policy at the Mackinac Center in Michigan. Matthew Anderson is federalism policy director at the Sutherland Institute in Utah.
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