Updated 8/29 to include additional information about Nevada's Gold Butte and Basin and Range monuments.
For Americans who care about their national monuments, August 24 was a big day. It was the deadline for a report, penned by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, that would detail his recommendations for which national monuments should either be shrunk in size or eliminated entirely.
Yesterday, Zinke delivered that report to the president. Oddly, neither the report nor his monument recommendations were made public. But newspaper reports agree that Zinke recommended reducing the size of several national monuments. He previously recommended shrinking Utah's Bears Ears in an interim update, and reports also point to possible changes at Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon and California, and Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine. Grand Staircase-Escalante was created by President Bill Clinton; the other three were created or expanded by President Barack Obama. On August 28, Nevada Senator Dean Heller confirmed that Zinke intends to make “minor adjustments” to two additional monuments: Gold Butte and Basin and Range, both in Nevada and both designated by President Obama.
It was a strange end to an unusual process, which began April 26 when President Trump signed an Executive Order to have Zinke review any national monument larger than 100,000 acres that was created since 1996 using the Antiquities Act—a total of 27 designations and expansions. Since then, the process itself has been fairly opaque. Zinke never outlined how he’d make his monumental decisions. He held meetings with stakeholders for some sites, but not all, and they weren’t always open to the public. He personally visited just eight of the monuments, including all six of those on his shortlist according to recent reports. (The two remaining monuments that he visited are Northeast Canyons and Seamounts in the Atlantic Ocean and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in New Mexico.) And before the process was over, he removed six names from review without explaining why.
The recommendations to shrink several monuments were made despite the fact that public comments overwhelmingly favored preserving them—a fact Zinke acknowledged in his 1,045-word public summary published yesterday. But in the same sentence, he characterized the pro-monument comments as part of "a well-orchestrated national campaign," seemingly to dismiss them.
“Here, 2.8 million individual people raised their voices to defend some of our most special public lands and our nation's proud conservation tradition, the most who have ever commented on any action Interior has taken," says Sarah Greenberger, Audubon's vice president for conservation policy. "To dismiss each of those people as somehow insignificant because they acted together in support of a cause they believe in is simply wrong.”
Here's what we know about the monuments that might be included in Zinke's final recommendations.
Cascade-Siskiyou, Oregon and California
This 17-year-old monument is a relic compared to the others on Zinke's hit list, but it's still more recent than Grand Staircase-Escalante. It was first protected by President Clinton, and then expanded by President Obama this past January. The move was followed by a slew of pending lawsuits, including one from a pair of lumber companies and a coalition of 18 local counties.
New size: No numbers have been reported so far, but Zinke was said to be scrutinizing more than 40,000 of the monument’s 112,000 acres, which fall under a decades-old pact between the federal government and communities in Western Oregon and California to allow for sustainable tree harvests.
Industry interests: Timber, timber, and more timber. Since its inception, the monument has been slammed for taking thousands of acres out of loggers' hands. Neighboring communities have stated the expansion hampers their economic revenue, while also making it more difficult to manage forests and fight wildfires. (An independent study shows that travel and tourism to the monument bring more steady jobs than timber, mining, and agriculture combined.) Also in the fray: ranching-advocacy groups.
In Zinke’s words: “Beautiful country, no doubt. There's areas that are being harvested, and harvested well. [I want to] make sure the monument doesn’t have unintended consequences.”
Bad news for birds: The old-growth woods of Cascade-Siskiyou are crucial to the Northern Spotted Owl’s survival. (The declining species is already losing ground to logging and rival Barred Owls.) Other wildlife in the monument’s Important Bird Area include White-headed Woodpeckers, Great Gray Owls, Black-billed Magpies, and Band-tailed Pigeons.
Bears Ears, Utah
Designated just eight months ago, the Bears Ears National Monument has been a hot-button topic since it was first proposed for Antiquities consideration during President Obama’s second term. At least 30 Native American tribes have thrown their support behind the monument, along with the vast majority of U.S. residents who submitted public comments during the review process.
New size: Reports say Zinke has recommended shrinking Bears Ears from 1.35 million acres to 160,000, a decrease of nearly 82 percent.
Industry interests: Officials claim that Bear Ears’ rich red buttes—which hold sacred tribal sites and understudied fossil reserves—are full of uranium, coal, oil, and gas reserves. The largest uranium mine in the area, owned by Canadian company Daneros, was left outside monument bounds. Still, Utah Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz (who has since resigned) have raged at the inability to sell new leases in Bears Ears. The Western Energy Alliance, a pro-fossil-fuels lobby group, also voiced their support of Zinke’s downgrade plans.
In Zinke’s words: “There is no doubt that it is drop-dead gorgeous country and that it merits some degree of protection, but designating a monument that—including state land—encompasses almost 1.5 million acres where multiple-use management is hindered or prohibited is not the best use of the land and is not in accordance with the intention of the Antiquities Act.”
Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah
After being earmarked by President Clinton in 1996, some Utahns protested the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante by decorating their towns with black balloons and flying flags half-staff. The state immediately filed a lawsuit, but later retracted it after receiving millions of dollars in compensation. Some say the current Interior review extends back to 1996 just to cover this monument.
New size: Again, there are no projected numbers as of yet. At 1.9 million acres, it’s currently the largest land-based monument in the nation.
Industry interests: All of the coal leases in Grand-Staircase Escalante were bought out by the federal government in 1999. But with 42 percent of it sitting on potential fossil-fuel reserves, including 62 billion tons of coal, it’s been a target for energy interests. Cattle grazing has been another fraught issue for local stakeholders.
In Zinke’s words: “Monuments should never be put in a position to prevent rather than protect, and the president is pro-energy across the board. We, as a country, we need an economy and what drives our economy in a lot of ways is energy. So energy has to be abundant, reliable, and affordable, and coal has taken huge hits and the president and I believe inappropriately so.”
Bad news for birds: With a stunning range of geographic structures, Grand Staircase-Escalante plays host to more than 200 avian species, including Long-billed Curlews, Burrowing Owls, Southwestern Willow Flycatchers, and the occasional endangered condor. Every year it's the site of an Audubon Christmas Bird Count as well.
Katahdin Woods and Waters, Maine
This monument of forests and mountains surrounding Mount Katahdin, Maine’s tallest peak, celebrated its one-year anniversary on the day of Zinke’s review deadline. The 87,500 acres were purchased by the Burt’s Bees family and donated to the federal government to turn into a national monument. It was later designated by President Obama. Opponents downplay the area’s beauty (Governor Paul LePage called it “the mosquito area”) and said it would prevent the growth of forestry and other industries. Some local residents have hung yellow “National Park No!” signs outside their houses to protest what they call a federal land grab.
New size: In June, when Zinke visited the monument, he said he didn’t plan to reduce its size or sell the land back to the state. He could make other changes such as allowing timber harvesting, snowmobiling, and hunting in currently closed areas. Zinke has even raised the possibility of protecting the land as a national park, which would allow the federal government to lease it out to industry.
Industry interests: Historically, paper mills and other forest-product industries dominated the area, but many factories have closed in the past few years. LePage and other opponents are generally concerned that the land’s protection will limit timber and other industrial development in the future. LePage also argues that the land isn’t beautiful enough to support a tourism industry and, to that end, blocked the construction of road signs leading to the park. Early reports, however, suggest local businesses are already seeing a tourism bump.
In Zinke’s words: “From what I hear, I think all sides love the land, everyone appreciates public access, and everyone appreciates that jobs matter. And who cannot say this is a beautiful site.”
Bad news for birds: The monument is home to many species facing declines throughout their ranges: Canada Warbler, Bicknell’s Thrush, and Rusty Blackbird are some examples. Hundreds more breed or stop there to refuel during long migrations. It's also a rare U.S. East Coast locale for spotting boreal specialties like the Black-backed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadee, and Spruce Grouse.
Basin and Range, Nevada
Drive three hours north of Las Vegas and you’ll come across an expanse of desert and mountains once called "one of the emptiest spaces in a state famous for its emptiness." This is Basin and Range monument, a 704,000-acre piece of a 19 million-acre landscape of mountains and valleys that stretches across the West. The site contains a unique variety of Mojave, Sonoran, and Great Basin ecosystems in addition to three entire mountain ranges, 4,000-year-old Native American rock art, historical mining sites, and a 1.5-mile-long earthen modern art sculpture. President Obama designated the monument on July 10, 2015.
New size: It’s not yet clear how the monument might be altered. On August 28, Senator Dean Heller (NV) confirmed that Zinke called him and said there would be “minor adjustments” to Basin and Range along with Gold Butte (see below). “You’re not going to see wholesale changes in those monuments,” Heller said.
Industry interests: The monument prevents the construction of 300 miles of railroad that would have run to Yucca Mountain, a proposed nuclear waste storage facility. State politicians oppose Yucca Mountain because they don’t want toxic nuclear waste shipped near and through Las Vegas, but local politicians want the jobs and economic development it would bring to the region. Additionally, fossil-fuel companies want to explore the region, including in the the sagebrush area known as Coal Valley; more than half of the monument’s acres have been nominated for leasing. However, of six exploratory wells drilled in the past, just one reported any oil or gas.
In Zinke’s words: “In a lot of cases people are afraid public land is going to be sold so they feel like a monument is a tool to make sure that public land stays in public hands. Out front, I am an advocate to never sell or transfer public land. So is the president.”
Bad news for birds: Two 300-acre valleys of sagebrush at the heart of the monument—Coal Valley and Garden Valley—are refuges from the rugged desert and home to Greater Sage-Grouse and other ecosystem specialists. Dry basins provide habitat for Sage Thrasher, Brewer's Sparrow, and Western Burrowing Owl. Pinyon Jay, Clark's Nutcracker, Mountain Bluebird, and Green-tailed Towhee live in the mountains, along with various raptors, including Golden Eagles.
Gold Butte, Nevada
These nearly 297,000 acres feature a desert landscape, including Native American rock art and sandstone towers, that connects two other protected areas to the north and south. This allows important wildlife, such as threatened desert tortoises (the northern half of the monument is designated tortoise habitat), bighorn sheep, mountain lions, Gambel's Quails and Chukar Partridges to travel between the areas. Senator Harry Reid campaigned for a decade to protect the area and finally got President Obama on board at the end of his term. It was designated on December 28, 2016.
New size: No confirmation yet; he told Senator Heller that there would be only “minor adjustments.” When Zinke visited Gold Butte on July 30, the Virgin Valley Water District (representing nearby Mesquite and Bunkerville) asked him for access to five springs within monument boundaries for their water supply. At an August 28 press conference, Senator Heller noted that Zinke believes protecting these springs as part of the monument was a “mistake” and he plans to “carve that out.” Adjusting the border to include the springs would eliminate around 15,000 acres from the monument. Zinke could also allow water development at that site.
Industry interests: More than three-quarters of its acres have attracted interest from oil and gas speculators along with interest in four uranium deposits. Perhaps more importantly, Gold Butte is a symbol for conservatives fighting to free up public lands. This is where Cliven Bundy got into an armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing rights in 2014, and his family ranch abuts the northern edge of the monument. Some monument opponents accused Obama of designating the monument as “political retaliation” against the family; proponents note, however, that vandalism at the site—including bullet-ridden petroglyphs, felled Joshua Trees, and 22 miles of dug irrigation trenches—increased dramatically since the standoff. So immediate protection was needed.
In Zinke’s words: “The good thing is, I haven’t met anybody on either side that doesn’t love the land. So there’s more in common on the monuments than there are opposites.”
Bad news for birds: The monument provides habitat for desert species such as the Crissal Thrasher, Sage Sparrow, Pinyon Jay, Juniper Titmouse, and Spotted Towhee, as well as montane species such as Mountain Chickadee and Western Bluebird at higher elevations. Bald and Golden Eagles soar overhead, as do fast-flying White-throated Swifts. Migratory birds including the Calliope Hummingbird, Gray Flycatcher, and Lesser Nighthawk stop over in the area.
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