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Zinke sends monuments review to White House

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

WASHINGTON – U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke sent his review of 27 national monuments, including two in New Mexico, to the White House on Thursday, but the summary released to the public offered no specifics about his recommendations.

Zinke’s report to President Donald Trump had been anticipated for weeks by anxious conservationists, environmentalists and those advocating for monument reductions or elimination.

“I am disappointed that the summary of Secretary Zinke’s recommendations to the president does not provide any real information to the public,” Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said. “This summary is not transparent and this is not how our government should do business.”

The Rio Grande Gorge, seen here at dusk in March 2013, is the centerpiece of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

In an interview with the Associated Press in Montana on Thursday, Zinke said he suggested that Trump make changes to a “handful” of monuments but declined to say which ones he targeted for likely reductions in size. New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte National Monuments are among those under review.

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The White House told the Journal on Thursday that “the report is a draft” and that presidential aides are continuing to work with the Interior Department to determine final recommendations for Trump.

“Once we have a final report, in the coming weeks, we will make it public,” the official said.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that “multiple individuals briefed on the decision” claim the secretary recommended reducing the size of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, as well as Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

Trump directed Zinke in April to review national monuments of more than 100,000 acres designated since 1996, saying some of them amounted to a “massive federal land grab.” At the time, Trump also said the review would “end another egregious abuse of federal power and to give that power back to the states and to the people where it belongs.”

Zinke told the AP on Thursday that he did not recommend eliminating any of the national monuments under review, which was a worst-case fear of conservationists and environmentalists. Final decisions about the 27 monuments are up to Trump.

“No President should use the authority under the Antiquities Act to restrict public access, prevent hunting and fishing, burden private land, or eliminate traditional land uses, unless such action is needed to protect the object,” Zinke said in the report summary. “The recommendations I sent to the president on national monuments will maintain federal ownership of all federal land and protect the land under federal environmental regulations, and also provide a much needed change for the local communities who border and rely on these lands for hunting and fishing, economic development, traditional uses, and recreation.”

The debate ahead is likely to center on the 111-year-old Antiquities Act. The law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt was created in part to help protect the theft of ancient treasures and to preserve cherished public lands. It gives presidents power to create monuments that contain “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.”

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Udall and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., contend that, under the Antiquities Act, a president can create a monument but that the law does not provide a mechanism to rescind or change a designation.

The Center for American Progress in Washington, which opposes reducing any of the monuments, says that, while presidents have altered monuments, the action has never been challenged or upheld in court.

The group notes that the last one changed was by President John F. Kennedy in 1962: “He added about 5,000 (acres) containing Native American archaeological sites to the Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, while also removing 320 acres.”

In the past, only Congress has abolished monuments, and it has done so 11 times.

The Center for Western Priorities, which has been leading a public awareness campaign to fight changes to the monuments, said that if Trump alters the monuments, the matter will end up in court.

“If President Trump takes any action to erase national monument acreage, he will trigger a court battle that will drag on for years,” said Jennifer Rokola, the center’s executive director.

Zinke visited New Mexico in July and met with public officials and others about his pending decision in the state.

Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican who represents the region that includes Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, has urged the Trump administration to reduce the nearly 500,000-acre monument by as much as 88 percent, arguing that antiquities, Native American artifacts and recreation can be protected and provided while still allowing for economic activity and more stringent border patrols that he says the existing monument hampers.

“I look forward to reviewing the full report,” Pearce said. “I hope the secretary addressed the concerns of local New Mexico farmers, ranchers, small businesses, sportsmen, and outdoorsmen who have been negatively impacted by the monument’s footprint.”

Zinke told the Associated Press in Montana on Thursday that there would be no sell-offs of public lands, a scenario presented by conservationists and environmentalists.

“I’ve heard this narrative that somehow the land is going to be sold or transferred,” Zinke told the AP. “That narrative is patently false and shameful. The land was public before, and it will be public after.”

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