WASHINGTON – The status of two national monuments in New Mexico and dozens more nationwide came into question Wednesday after President Donald Trump said his administration would review them to determine whether the protected status is in the best interest of their surrounding communities.
Trump made the announcement at the U.S. Department of Interior moments before he signed an executive order directing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to scrutinize some national monuments designated under the Antiquities Act, which is more than 100 years-old. Trump said that in some cases the monuments, which are protected from development, amount to a “massive land grab” by the federal government.
“The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it’s time we end this abusive practice,” Trump said at the signing ceremony, adding that he hoped to curb an “egregious abuse of federal power.”
The president’s order for a review applies to monuments created after 1996 that are over 100,000 acres. That includes the Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monuments in New Mexico, as well as the newly created Bears Ears National Monument in Southeastern Utah. The Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains monuments were set aside for protection by former President Barack Obama. The order requires Zinke to consult local governments and tribes as part of the review.
Neither the White House nor the Department of Interior produced a list of monument designations that are most likely to be adjusted or rescinded, but the controversial Bears Ears monument in Utah is widely believed to have triggered the review.
The land set-aside was one of Obama’s final acts in office and angered the entire Utah congressional delegation, who viewed the monument as too expansive.
While some cheered Trump’s announcement Wednesday as valid pushback against federal “land grabs,” the move sparked concern and even outrage among those who fear the Interior review could jeopardize monuments in New Mexico.
Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, questioned whether it would be legal for Trump to rescind any federal monument status and he pledged to “fight him every step of the way” if the president attempts to do so.
“This executive order is nothing more than a political move that will waste limited resources and unnecessarily add uncertainty for growing businesses and communities around these monuments, including two in New Mexico,” Udall said.
“I won’t stand by if the Trump administration tries to open the door to selling them off to the highest bidder,” New Mexico’s senior senator added.
Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican whose district includes the Organ Mountains-Desert Peak Monument, near Las Cruces, opposed its designation in 2014. At that time, he proposed setting aside a smaller portion of land in the rugged mountain range than the nearly half-million acres that was eventually designated.
Pearce said Wednesday that he supported Trump’s review.
“The Obama administration, and the administrations before it, repeatedly abused the Antiquities Act by creating expansive national monuments that blatantly disregarded input from local communities and governments that are directly affected by these designations,” Pearce said. “New Mexicans, and folks all across the nation, deserve to have access to federal lands for recreational use, hunting, grazing and the economic opportunity that comes with it.
“We all share the common goal of preserving the beauty of our lands for generations to come, but responsible conservation efforts must consider input from surrounding communities and the local economies that are affected,” he added.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a northern New Mexico Democrat who represents the area including the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, said the monument was created with widespread public input and support from the surrounding communities. He said any attempt to change it would amount to “an assault on our nation’s historical, cultural and natural heritage.”
“The Rio Grande del Norte leaves a lasting impression on all those who visit and all those who benefit from the land – whether through recreation or ranching,” Luján said. “More than that, national parks and public lands help define who we are as a nation.”
After Monday’s ceremony, Zinke issued a statement saying presidential monument designations have gotten out of control.
“Historically, the Act calls for the President to designate the ‘smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected,'” Zinke said, noting that monuments used to comprise hundreds of acres, not hundreds of thousands of acres. “Despite this clear directive, ‘smallest area’ has become the exception and not the rule.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, worked to secure the recent monument designations in New Mexico. He said any effort to roll them back would be met with “fierce resistance.” Recent national polls have shown strong support for national parks and monuments.
“New Mexicans’ livelihoods are rooted in our open spaces,” Heinrich said. “Any effort to wipe national monuments from the map should not be mistaken for the mainstream values of Westerners whose way of life depends on the region’s land and water.”
Meanwhile, New Mexico Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, a Republican, said Trump’s executive order could disrupt a proposed land exchange between the New Mexico State Land Office and the Bureau of Land Management that would consolidate state and federal holdings within the 242,455-acre Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.
Dunn said the Land Office and the BLM have been negotiating a land exchange that would transfer about 41,000 acres of state-owned surface and mineral rights within the monument to the BLM. In turn, the Land Office would select about 78,000 acres of federal surface and mineral rights in surrounding counties that could be opened to economic development. The exchange would create a solid block of BLM land where there is now a checkerboard of state and federal holdings, and grazing opportunities have been reduced, Dunn said. A second part of the deal also would give the BLM 2,000 acres at the mouth of the remote Sabinoso Wilderness Area in San Miguel County, east of Las Vegas, N.M.
Dunn said a delay of 60 days or more could push the closing date for the swap past the end of his first term in office and jeopardize the deal. Dunn is seeking re-election in 2018.
“I hope we will be able to move forward sooner than later, but I fear that if we don’t finalize the exchange within the next couple of months, it won’t get done,” Dunn said.