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Editorial: Trump monument review could be the real land grab

In his usual broad stroke, no-details fashion, President Trump signed an executive order Wednesday directing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review all national monuments of 100,000 acres or larger designated under the 1906 Antiquities Act since 1996 – a period covering the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Such a move could have far-reaching consequences for New Mexico.

Although Trump called some of the designations “land grabs” and an “egregious abuse of federal power,” the designations – clearly legal under the Antiquities Act – are aimed at protecting already-public lands which, among other things, generally closes them to timber harvesting, mining, pipelines and commercial development.

Zinke claims that some of the newer monuments might not have followed the Antiquities Act provision that says monuments should encompass the “smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

It’s widely believed that the new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah – which was opposed by that state’s Congressional delegation – triggered the review. So why not order a review of that monument first?

Instead, Trump’s order covers many others, including the 242,455-acre Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in Taos County and the 496,330-acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces.

The Antiquities Act, passed in 1906 during the Republican administration of President Theodore Roosevelt, has been used by 16 presidents to establish national monuments. Obama established 28 of them – including the two new ones in New Mexico – Clinton designated 19 and George W. Bush created two.

Although the act doesn’t give the president power to undo a designation, and no president has ever taken such a step, Trump isn’t like any president we’ve seen. And that begs the question of what Trump will do when he gets the results of his review?

But in the meantime, Zinke’s review of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument could gum up the works of a deal designed to provide access to the currently land-locked, 16,030-acre Sabinoso Wilderness, a dramatic piece of the high plains east of Las Vegas. Although the Sabinoso is public land, it is surrounded by private property owners who have declined to allow public access, leaving them and their friends what amounts to a private wilderness area that borders the Canadian River and features cliffs and 1,000-foot-deep canyons home to numerous wildlife species.

State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, a Republican, says Trump’s review could affect various land swaps he hopes would lead to public access to the Sabinoso, as well as consolidating state and federal holdings within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

And that would be a real and tragic “land grab.”

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.