Trump executive order allows public review of large monument designations
By JIM MATTHEWS
Since the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906, Presidents have set aside federal lands as National Monuments by fiat. Wand strokes. Kingly decrees.
The act said the lands should be important “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, [or] other objects of historic or scientific interest,” but this has apparently has come to mean anything a president thinks is important, placate a group, or shine up his legacy.
Teddy Roosevelt created the first one shortly after the act’s passage – Devil’s Tower National Monument – apparently knowing that someday it would be used as a backdrop for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” a wonderful Hollywood movie -- or maybe as a future rockclimbing destination. It is an interesting rock formation, but what’s the great importance?
Thankfully, most presidents have used the act to set aside historical sites for protection so they wouldn’t be sold off, plundered, or looted, but some – like Roosevelt’s first set-aside – were used for dubious reasons to protect natural resources which were already protected. Most changed little or nothing on the ground, except to add another layer of bureaucracy to the lands management. In most cases, the lands were still managed by the same management agency that was already managing them. In other words, most were for show.
President Obama created more monuments with more acreage than any other president, with 34 designations covering over a half-billion acres, many of them very controversial, and none really falling within the scope of the original act.
President Trump, who apparently read the original act, signed an executive order last week (April 26) mandating that the Department of Interior, which oversees all monuments, begin a process to allow public review all monument designations over 100,000 acres made since 1996. There’s a reason for the examination of just the big parcels. The act required that designations not exceed “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
In Southern California, four large monuments created since 2000 (one under Clinton and three under Obama) cover 2.6 million acres of public lands. Just what are we protecting on the 2.6 million acres that isn’t already protected under current management and laws?
There were people advocating for the creation of National Parks for all four of these places, but there wasn’t the general public interest and political will in Congress to make it happen. So the environmental community lobbied Clinton and Obama to take their pet projects to a faux finish line, and they obliged.
However, a national monument is not a national park. The only thing most of these monument designations have done is stop mining on these lands and adding an expensive layer of bureaucracy.
The Trump order directs Interior staff and asks the public to comment on whether the designated lands meet the criteria of the act, how the designations affect public multiple uses, if there were concerns overlooked when these monuments were created, and if there is funding available to properly manage these lands.
All the monuments in California could and should be swept away tomorrow if funding is considered. The piggy bank is empty.
If there has been additional funding for the monuments, it came at the expense of other public lands in agency budgeting processes. The reality is that less money has been available because of added staff, and no additional money allocated for these new monuments. Most are simply being managed the same as they were before the designations -- with managers restricting public access as a way of coping with poor budgets for road and trail maintenance and repairs. Many managers have also used the designation as an excuse for closing routes under the guise of resource protection, without public input or heeding the original act’s specific instruction not to restrict public use.
The public review period on these monuments will begin May 12 and continue for 60 days. In Southern California, the four monuments up for review are Carrizo Plain, Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and San Gabriel Mountains national monuments. Other, smaller monument designations are also likely to be considered for revision or elimination under the new president’s order.
Six months from now the Department of Interior will submit a report back to the president with the public’s and agency staff’s recommendations. The simple fact is that all of these monuments are an incredible waste of time and money with no benefit to the resource or its protection, and they don’t meet the criteria for designation under the 1906 act. What are the odds that is what the report will say?
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.]