Sometime today, as he looks to bolster a list of accomplishments before he hits the 100th day of his administration, President Trump is again expected to take out his pen and sign more executive orders.
For one expected order it’s a move that seeks not so much to get something done as to undo select accomplishments of his last three predecessors.
Trump is expected to require Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review the national monument designations of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, with the intention of either seeing some of the those protected areas, both on land and water, eliminated or decreased in size.
The review and the potential elimination of monuments has been pressed by some Republicans, in particular, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who opposed Obama’s creation of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah last year. The objections stretch back as far as 1996 and Clinton’s creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The monuments were designated under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Unlike national parks, which are created by acts of Congress, presidents are empowered by the Antiquities Act to set aside federal land to protect natural, cultural, historic or scientific features.
A total of 157 national monuments have been set aside in the act’s 111-year history, including four in Washington state: San Juan Islands National Monument, Hanford Reach National Monument, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and Mount Olympus National Monument, which became Olympic National Park in 1938.
Two of this state’s monuments — San Juan Islands, created in 2013, and Hanford Reach, created in 2000 — would fall under Trump’s proposed review.
Hatch and others have objected to the monuments as “land grabs,” but these are federal and not private lands, and the protections seek to preserve natural and cultural treasures for future generations.
In the case of Bears Ears, the monument protects natural wonders but also artifacts, rock art and cave dwellings of the region’s ancient Pueblo civilization. Because of those artifacts, the Obama administration worked with several Utah tribes to establish joint federal and tribal management of the monument.
The monuments typically aren’t simply a presidential fiat but follow requests from within the home state and a process that involves state and federal officials and public participation.
Nine Democratic senators, including Washington state’s Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, recently wrote Trump urging him to leave the monuments unaltered, pointing to a record of discussions and consultation between the Obama administration and Utah’s state government in establishing Bears Ears.
Once established, national monuments, such as Grand Staircase, build a following not only for what they protect but for the economic benefits they provide by encouraging tourism. Many national parks, in fact, began — as Olympic National Park did — as monuments.
Following his Interior secretary’s review, Trump should not attempt to simply rescind all or part of his predecessors’ decisions.
While a president has the authority to designate monuments, presidents can’t undo them, as outlined in a recent commentary in The Washington Post by attorney and national parks advocate Robert Rosenbaum.
The Antiquities Act, Rosenbaum writes, is explicit in granting presidents the power to create, but contains no implied ability to rescind designated monuments.
It has happened. President Woodrow Wilson, in 1915, cut the acreage of the 610,000-acre Mount Olympus monument in half, in the belief that timber, specifically spruce, would be needed for the nation’s military aircraft during World War I. That acreage and more was restored when the national park was created in 1938. Olympic National Park now totals more than 922,000 acres.
But, as Rosenbaum outlines, President Franklin Roosevelt asked his attorney general in 1938 if he had the power to abolish a national monument and was told he didn’t. That standard was later written into law in 1976, setting federal land management policy, and specifically reserves the authority to modify or abolish monuments to Congress alone.
If Bears Ears, Grand Staircase, San Juan Islands or any other monument created in the last 21 years is to be eliminated, reduced in size or its protections lessened, that’s a debate that will have to happen in Congress.
An attempt to eliminate or reduce one monument would be seen by many in the public as a threat to all 156 of the others.