President Donald Trump cut two national monuments in Utah down to size Monday, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced Tuesday he will recommend trimming a sliver off the new Gold Butte monument in Nevada.
Environmentalists and some Native Americans are crying foul – hysterically – and claiming that Trump’s “unprecedented” actions are to benefit energy and mining companies. Instead, Trump and the local officials who support his moves consider the monumental designations by former presidents Clinton and Obama themselves to constitute a “land grab” under the Antiquities Act of 1906.
A look at how Nevada representatives responded to Tuesday’s news on Gold Butte illustrates how heavily politicized this issue has become.
“The Department of Interior’s decision is welcome news for Nevada as it allows the Valley Water District to access their water rights that were lost under the previous administration,” said Republican Sen. Dean Heller. “I was proud to work with Secretary Zinke to prioritize local concerns over the opinion of Washington bureaucrats, and I’m pleased with his recommendation to the White House. As this process moves forward, I remain committed to promoting the ‘Nevada’ model of conservation.”
Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, on the other hand, labeled the administration’s actions as downright immoral:
“President Trump’s unprecedented decision undermines a century of precedent under President Theodore Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act and clearly demonstrates his continued inability to serve as a moral leader of our country,” she declared.
And Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen of Nevada’s third congressional district said, “Secretary Zinke’s process to review our National Monuments has been a sham from the start, failing to listen to local advocates and tribal communities in Nevada who care deeply about preserving the natural beauty and cultural heritage of Gold Butte.”
We don’t know how big of a sliver Zinke is withdrawing from Gold Butte, but it’s not likely to put much of a dent in the 300,000-acre “monument.” This is land that somehow survived decades of cattle grazing by the Bundy family and is still in good enough shape to be admired for its natural beauty.
Media reports on Monday’s action by Trump also included a very public response from outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia, which Reuters says recently changed its website home page to read: “The President Stole Your Land”.
“You mean Patagonia, made in China? This is an example of a special interest,” Zinke told reporters. “I think it is shameful and appalling that they would blatantly lie in order to get money in their coffers. No land, not one square inch, has been transferred or sold,” Zinke said.
Patagonia must be confusing the monument issue with the federal land transfer movement.
Opponents of the size reductions make no mention of the fact that many parts of the West – including large chunks adjacent to new monuments like Basin and Range, are already designated as Wilderness Areas or Wilderness Study Areas – making them even more off-limits than a national monument. The federal government still controls the 500-plus Wilderness Study Areas covering more than 12 million acres in the U.S. – as well as the existing 200-plus Wilderness Areas that already seal off more than 8 million acres.
“Public lands are for public use, and I believe that communities that border public lands, like those in the Virgin Valley, deserve to have their voices heard in land management decisions,” Zinke said on Tuesday. “I believe that modest changes to Gold Butte will restore the public voice and will allow for critical public access for water rights and infrastructure.”
The only way to determine the public consensus with any certainty is to put such decisions before the voters, but then we would be in a situation where masses of people with no real knowledge of reality on the ground would control land they have never seen or cared about.
With all of the angst over monument designations it might be better for Congress to make the decisions instead of the president. Cortez Masto, in fact, recommends Congress be in charge of any alterations.
Why not leave the entire process to Congress, including the designations themselves? Getting Congress to agree on anything is a major undertaking, which is why so many Wilderness Study Areas remain in limbo decades after their fate was supposed to have been decided.
The Antiquities Act has become so antiquated it is now being used to preserve nondescript landscapes like the Great Basin. Instead of firing off press releases, members of Congress could take charge by repealing the act and assuming the responsibility of designating any new monuments.