Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Wednesday will begin an in-depth review of major national monuments established over the past two decades, potentially setting the stage for President Trump to become the first commander in chief in history to rescind a monument designation.
Mr. Trump will sign an executive order Wednesday afternoon directing Mr. Zinke to examine all national monuments created since 1996 that are at least 100,000 acres in size. More than two dozen monuments fit that criteria.
Mr. Zinke told reporters that the two “bookends” of the review are the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument established by President Clinton in 1996 and the massive Bears Ears monument created by President Obama in the final weeks of his tenure.
Both monuments are in Utah, and both remain highly controversial. Each was established over the objections of some lawmakers and other stakeholders in the state.
“The administration, as you all know, has heard from members of Congress and states. In some cases, the designation of the monuments may have resulted in loss of jobs, reduced wages, and reduced public access,” Mr. Zinke told reporters late Tuesday. “In the case of significant public land use, we feel the public, the people, that the monuments affect should be considered.”
The secretary did not offer specific examples of job losses as a result of national monuments, though he promised to review that possibility as part of his study.
The review comes after Mr. Obama, in an effort to close off public land and vast offshore areas to energy development and other activities, took presidential authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to new levels and set a record for the most land and sea cordoned off as monuments.
The century-old law gives presidents clear authority to establish monuments, but Mr. Zinke’s review will examine whether Mr. Obama, Mr. Clinton or any other past presidents went beyond what the law intended.
For example, the law states that monuments should be limited to “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
Bears Ears National Monument is 1.3 million acres.
Mr. Zinke stressed that no monument designation will be immediately rescinded as part of his review. Instead, he’ll present preliminary findings to the president within 45 days and issue a final report in six months.
“The executive order does not strip any monument of a designation. The executive order does not loosen any environmental or conservation regulation on any land or marine areas,” the secretary said.
But progressives and environmentalists already are taking aim at Mr. Trump’s coming executive order. They argue that not only will the Interior Department’s review process put protected lands at risk, but they also say the administration is stepping into a legal quagmire.
While monuments have been reduced in size, no president has ever tried to outright rescind a monument designation, and there’s no clear legal authority in the Antiquities Act or elsewhere granting such power.
“With this review, the Trump administration is walking into a legal, political and moral minefield. No president has ever attempted to revoke a national monument — and for good reason: such an attack on our nation’s public lands and heritage is deeply unpopular and illegal,” said Kate Kelly, public lands director at the Center for American Progress.
“Any honest, transparent review of national monuments will reveal them for what they are: testaments to our nation’s heritage and economic engines for local communities. But make no mistake — this review should worry all Americans who want to pass on our national parks and public lands to the next generation,” she said.
Some environmental groups have vowed to sue the administration if Mr. Trump undoes any monuments, though Mr. Zinke brushed off such threats Tuesday and said he won’t make decisions “on the basis of getting sued or not getting sued.”
More broadly, he fired back at charges that his department, and the administration as a whole, doesn’t care about the nation’s monuments and public lands.
“This is an enormous responsibility I have,” he said. “No one loves their public lands as much as I do.”