WASHINGTON – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended Thursday that President Donald Trump alter at least three national monuments established by his immediate predecessors, including two in Utah, a move expected to reshape federal land and water protections and certain to trigger major legal fights.
In a report Zinke submitted to the White House, 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, according to multiple individuals briefed on the decision.
President Bill Clinton declared the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996, while President Barack Obama designated the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears last year. Cascade-Siskiyou, which now encompasses more than 113,000 acres, was established by Clinton shortly before leaving office and expanded by Obama in January.
Trump had ordered Zinke to examine more than two dozen sites established by Clinton, Obama and George W. Bush under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The nearly four-month process pitted those who have felt marginalized by federal actions over the past 20 years against backers who see the sites as bolstering tourism and recreation while safeguarding important relics, environments and species.
The Interior Department did not give specifics on Zinke’s recommendations, instead releasing a report summary that described each of the 27 protected areas scrutinized as “unique.”
Yet his proposal takes direct aim at a handful of the nation’s most controversial protected areas out west, according to several individuals who asked for anonymity because the report has yet to be made public. Zinke, who had called for revising Bears Ears’ boundaries in an interim report in June, is recommending a “significant” reduction in its size, an administration official said.
The report also calls for changing the management rules for several sites, such as allowing fishing in marine monuments where it is currently prohibited, and would affect the boundaries of other monuments beyond the three that officials identified Thursday.
“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 a statement. “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.”
A White House official confirmed that Trump had received the report but would not say when it would be released or when the president would act on Zinke’s recommendations. The secretary had earlier taken six monuments off the review list without any detailed explanation of why.
Zinke acknowledged supporters who point out that monuments can bring economic benefits to local communities.
But he also noted opponents’ concerns that designations had translated into reduced public access, confusing management plans “and pressure applied private land owners … to sell.”
Zinke did not recommend abolishing any monument. Still, some of the key constituencies most critical of sweeping restrictions for federal lands and waters — ranchers, fishing operators and local Republican politicians — won key concessions in his final set of recommendations.
“Quite frankly, previous administrations got a little too greedy,” said Ethan Lane, executive director of the public lands council at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Nearly 3 million people submitted comments to Interior on the review, which stemmed from an executive order Trump signed in late April. The overwhelming majority of those comments supported the idea of preserving public lands and the sites’ existing boundaries, though Interior officials noted that many of the comments received were form letters.
Zinke traveled to five states during the process, visiting Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Cascade-Siskiyou plus Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine; Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in New Mexico; and Gold Butte and Basin and Range in Nevada. He also discussed the fate of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, which lies roughly 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, with a top official from the New England Aquarium and then later with fishing and industry groups in Boston.
While the president’s executive order targeted designations of at least 100,000 acres, Zinke later made an exception and added Katahdin Woods and Waters. Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Trump ally, ranks as one of that monument’s most vociferous opponents.
The administration plans to leave six designations in place: Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients; Idaho’s Craters of the Moon; Washington’s Hanford Reach; Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant; Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks; and California’s Sand to Snow. In each case, according to Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift, there was “very little, to no, local opposition.”