In the last days of 2016, and some of the last days of his term, President Obama designated Bears Ears National Monument, which stretches across 1.35 million acres of Utah’s desert landforms and sacred tribal sites. Along with a flood of support for the announcement came a flurry of controversy: Utah politicians, businessmen, and ranchers said they hadn’t been properly consulted and demanded the monument’s revocation.
Less than four months later, on April 26, President Trump, surrounded by Utah politicians critical of Bears Ears, signed an executive order to review existing monuments. The order directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review any national monument that is at least 100,000 acres in size and was created since 1996 under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives presidents power to protect public land as national monuments.
Now 27 national monuments are under scrutiny and face potential downsizing or even elimination. Officially launched on May 11th, the review was set for 60 days and ends, along with the ability for the public to make comments, on Monday, July 10th. Although no final decisions will be made until the review process has concluded, in an interim report, Secretary Zinke already recommended to President Trump that Bears Ears be downsized.
Prior presidents have revised national monument borders, but every monument designated in the past 80 years has remained intact. So Secretary Zinke's review is out of the norm for recent administrations, and the methodical review of many monuments at once is unprecedented. The 60-day comment period also stands in stark contrast to the amount of discussion that typically goes toward designating a monument. Despite the seemingly rushed nature of the Bears Ears designation, the process for establishing a monument typically involves years of official public comments to incorporate feedback from residents, tribal nations, businesses, and other stakeholders.
Take Hanford Reach National Monument as an example. For decades, agriculture, industry, and even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tried to develop the sagebrush habitat, including a stretch of the Columbia River, in southeast Washington state, and were always fought off by tribes, fishermen, and environmentalists. After extensive back-and-forth between the stakeholders—generating a public record of their arguments and comments—in 2000 it was designated a monument. Today at Hanford Reach, fall chinook salmon safely swim up the Columbia River to spawn, and birds such as Greater Sage-Grouse and Sagebrush Sparrows nest in dense, patchy brush.
As is often the case with a national monument designation, not everyone was happy at the time—but today, they’ve adjusted. “Years ago, the people who were against Hanford Reach becoming a monument are now fully in favor of it,” says Rick Leaumont, a Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society committee member who helped Hanford gain monument status. “There’s no opposition to it today. They’re now bitterly trying to protect it."
Yet because it spans nearly 200,000 acres and was established after 1996, Hanford Reach is included on the executive order’s review list—a fact that’s somewhat of a shock to the local community. Fortunately for proponents of Hanford Reach, on the list of monuments up for potential downsizings or revocations, it isn’t as high a priority as Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument—which was designated in 1996 by President Bill Clinton—and some other more recent designations made by President Obama. The list of at-risk monuments also includes the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, where Audubon scientists discovered that Atlantic Puffins spend their winters, and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, now the world's largest protected habitat and home to more than 7,000 species.
In addition to putting wildlife in jeopardy and reducing access to these lands for the general public, there is also a concern that losing or modifying any monument would undermine the Antiquities Act, says Gail Gatton, executive director of Audubon Washington. “The Antiquities Act has helped groups like Audubon and the federal government come to terms with the need for public land protection," she says. "Revoking monument status degrades this legislation."