The national monuments ‘review’ is a sham

The Trump administration is using cynical politics, not sound policy.


I have been trying to find one good policy reason for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to go after national monuments, but the fact is, there are none. Zinke, a pro-energy Montanan who speciously claims to be a conservationist, is undertaking an unprecedented review of national monuments dedicated under the Antiquities Act at the behest of President Donald Trump. He will deliver his recommendations for shrinking or rescinding a hit-list of monuments on Aug. 24. 

But his review is a sham, and so is the presidential directive that ordered it. Here’s the reasoning the president gave in April for ordering the review: that monument designations can “create barriers to achieving energy independence, restrict public access to and use of Federal lands, burden State, tribal, and local governments, and otherwise curtail economic growth.” These are demonstrably untrue, so let’s look at them in order.

President Donald Trump displays his signature on an executive order to review monuments around the country. Secretary Ryan Zinke stands at left, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, second from right.

In terms of achieving energy independence, only a few monuments sit atop commercially recoverable hydrocarbon formations, and in most cases the lease-holders can continue to develop the energy deposits with or without a monument. That’s if they want to: Prices for coal, oil, uranium and natural gas are low enough that new drilling just doesn’t make financial sense in many of these places. A look at the most recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency shows formations around the Four Corners, throughout Wyoming, and into far eastern Montana. These are broad maps, and different well sites will produce different results, but few of the monuments sit atop these plays. Those monuments that do overlap with extractive plays won’t make a difference. Despite Trump’s rhetoric, the U.S. is drilling, digging, sucking and pumping the heck out of the West already—so much so that prices for natural gas, oil, and coal are all relatively low, thanks to a glutted market. So there really is no energy-related reason that monuments should be messed with.

How about public access to land? Generally speaking, monuments allow a broad range of use and access, including careful grazing and logging, the use of motorized vehicles on designated roads, hunting and fishing, and access to inholdings. Expressly prohibited uses on monuments generally have to do with sale or leasing of land for mining and other extractive use, but are generally pretty open. Other prohibitions often include those against looting artifacts from public land—provisions few people would argue against. So Trump’s claim that monument status restricts access is false. 

And finally, there’s the notion that less protection will lead to more economic growth. This is easily disproven, as well. An analysis of 17 national monuments by Bozeman, Montana-based Headwaters Economics shows that the counties around monuments all continued to prosper after monument designation. Around Arizona’s Ironwood Forest National Monument, which was designated in 2000 to protect the beauty of the Sonoran Desert, jobs and income have continued to grow. From 2001 to 2015, in adjacent Pima County, real personal income grew 28 percent. Service jobs grew 25 percent, while non-service jobs decreased 21 percent, meaning the type of jobs changed, but overall economic health did not. Across four Idaho counties adjacent to Craters of the Moon National Monument, also designated in 2000, traditional jobs in agriculture, mining and timber held steady, even as per capita income went up 36 percent over the next 15 years. Similar changes and growth took place in other monument-adjacent counties, and while it’s hard to nail down causality, the fact remains that not a single county in the analysis suffered economic decline after a monument designation. The president’s claim that monuments “curtail economic growth” is also false.

So what’s behind the presidential order, if not policy? Good old-fashioned politics. Trump has no political experience, so he is easily lobbied. And it seems that one of the best lobbyists when it comes to Trump and monuments is Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. Hatch is a longtime senator who wields a great amount of power. He has been deeply offended by the “overbearing” designations of two monuments in his state, Grand Staircase-Escalante, designated by Bill Clinton in 1996, and Bears Ears, designated by Barack Obama at the end of his term, in December 2016. And he has the president’s ear. 

In declaring the review of monuments, Trump credited Hatch for his efforts. “He doesn’t give up,” Trump said at his announcement. “And he’s shocked that I’m doing it, but I’m doing it because it’s the right thing.” Trump said he was reviewing the monuments—arbitrarily back to 1996, the very year Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated—to “return control to the people, the people of Utah.” He signed the order (perhaps not realizing the federal public land has never belonged to the people of Utah exclusively, but to all of Americans), then gave Hatch the pen.

So it would seem that this monument review is not at all about practical policy—not for energy, or access, or economics. Instead, the review is transparent pandering to Trump’s new political allies and a cheap thrill for his Obama-hating base. What more would you expect from Trump, who prefers golf courses to grand vistas? Here’s hoping for less cynicism out of Zinke, who, as a Westerner, should know the inestimable value of our public lands.

Brian Calvert is the editor-in-chief of High Country News. 

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