In monuments report, a skewed view of protections

Under the Antiquities Act, landscapes like the Grand Canyon count as ‘objects’ that can be protected.

 

In late August, Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted a report detailing the results of his review of 27 national monuments to the White House. Zinke’s suggestions, kept secret at the time, were recently made public by the Washington Post. The report calls for boundary changes at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah, Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada, and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which straddles the border between Oregon and California; and looser restrictions on activities at Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande Del Norte National Monuments, both in New Mexico. It also proposes trims or changes to allowed activities at three marine monuments and one monument in Maine.

Monuments are intended to protect significant landmarks, structures, or “objects of historic or scientific interest” on federal land under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The leaked report, however, says that recent monument proclamations have gone too far in defining things like ecosystems and biodiversity as “objects.” But a century-old Supreme Court ruling shows that judges have long recognized that the definition of an “object” in this context is expansive — large enough, in fact, to encompass the Grand Canyon itself.

National monuments, like Cascade-Siskiyou, are designated to protect landmarks, structures, or “objects of historic or scientific interest."

Despite the rhetoric of the report, there’s legal and historical support for a broad definition of what constitutes an object in need of protection. “It’s clear from the very beginning of the act that it doesn’t mean an object you can hold in your hand,” says Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice based in Seattle. “It has always meant something broader.”

Several areas that are now national parks were first protected as national monuments, including the Grand Canyon; the landscapes themselves were the objects protected. In 1920, the Supreme Court explicitly stated that the Grand Canyon qualifies as “an object of unusual scientific interest.” The report says that decisions to shelter certain “objects” in some modern monuments were “likely politically motivated.” Later, it states that “the Secretary has concerns that in modern uses of the act, objects are not consistently and clearly defined.” But the argument for a narrower definition, implying “that Congress really intended just to protect small areas, or objects that are relatively limited, is just wrong,” says Heidi McIntosh, the managing attorney of the Rocky Mountain regional Earthjustice office.

Objects that have been protected in recent designations include biodiversity at Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument — the “spectacular variety of rare and beautiful species of plants and animals” that live there, according to the proclamation that established the monument in 2000. Cascade-Siskiyou is also a “biological crossroads,” an area that links several rich ecosystems. “By protecting that bridge itself, you’re benefitting much more area than just the bridge,” says Dave Willis, the chair of environmental group Soda Mountain Wilderness Council.

Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument on the border of Oregon and California was established in 2000 to protect biodiversity.

To safeguard that biodiversity, the original proclamation included a rule against driving motor vehicles off-road; the leaked report incorrectly states that all motorized transportation was prohibited. That error is emblematic of the report, which discounts years of scientific and public support, Willis says. “To have (that support) dismissed with such a slapdash, error-filled report is extremely frustrating,” he says.

The report argues for shrinking or changing monuments, in part to bolster mining, timber production, grazing and other natural resource-dependent industries. That focus has environmental groups concerned that Zinke is more interested in exploiting the landscapes than protecting them. Despite evidence that the economies of counties bordering national monuments are not negatively impacted by protections, the report repeatedly links monuments to financial hardship and calls for opening up protected areas to extractive activities. “This is all political posturing,” McIntosh says, of the review process. “This is not about doing right by the land or the majority of people who cherish these places.”

And a lot of people do cherish national monuments. More than 2.8 million comments on the monument review were submitted to the Department of the Interior, the vast majority of which were in favor of keeping the monuments intact. The report, however, states that most of those were form comments originating from a handful of non-profit campaigns, rather than unique comments.

Earthjustice and several other environmental organizations plan to sue the federal government if Trump follows the recommendations outlined in Zinke’s report and shrinks any of the national monuments. “These are national treasures,” says McIntosh. “They deserve a vigorous defense, and that’s what they’re going to get.”

Emily Benson is an editorial fellow at High Country News. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...