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Reducing Antiquities Act land grabs

By Paul Driessen
web posted December 18, 2017

Acting on recommendations by Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, on December 4 President Trump significantly reduced the size of two enormous areas in Utah that Presidents Clinton and Obama had set aside as limited-access, no-development zones under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

Mr. Trump’s action reduced the Grand Staircase Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments from a combined 3.2 million acres (the size of Connecticut) to 1.2 million acres (slightly smaller than Delaware).

Utah residents and elected officials applauded the move as long overdue. The Patagonia and North Face outdoor apparel companies, environmentalist groups, and various liberal politicians and news outlets branded the action a desecration, claimed President Trump “stole” the lands from the American people, and launched coordinated and hyperventilated disinformation campaigns.

In reality, the actual thefts were masterminded and conducted by previous White House officials, in cahoots with radical environmentalists. Employing the immense power of the federal government, they took valuable state lands, multiple private lands and property rights, and a private company’s most valuable asset (America’s largest clean coal deposit) without any compensation whatsoever.

The Antiquities Act was intended to protect areas of historic, prehistoric or scientific value, and lands designated as monuments were to be “the smallest size compatible with the proper care and management” of objects or sites to be protected. Its goal is to safeguard fossils, unique plants and habitats, Native artifacts and sites, geologic structures and special scenic areas from damage, desecration and looting.

The first national monument ever designated (the 1,347-acre Devils Tower) respected the law’s language and intent, as have most designations since then. However, in recent decades presidents have increasingly used the act to circumvent Congress and replace proper legislative processes with executive decrees. They established enormous de facto wilderness areas with the stroke of a pen – usually with little or no consultation with people and elected officials in communities that would be most severely impacted.

It is these abuses that Messrs. Zinke and Trump sought to correct. In so doing, they followed decisions by Presidents Coolidge, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Taft and Wilson, who also reduced the size of previous monument designations. The Utah changes address arguably the greatest onshore Antiquities Act abuses.

President Clinton designated the 1,880,461-acre Grand Staircase Escalante Monument in large part to make a billion-dollar coal deposit off limits, by preventing any roads from reaching it. The action was quietly engineered by Katie McGinty, his White House Environmental Policy Office director, in collaboration with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Even Mr. Clinton was not fully aware of what he was signing, and Ms. McGinty totally blindsided Utah Governor Michael Levitt, who (like every other citizen and official in Utah) knew nothing about the massive land lockup until it was a done deal.

(For all the sordid details, read chapter 12 in Cracking Big Greenor chapter 4 in Undue Influence.)

President Obama designated the 1,351,849-acre Bears Ears NM three weeks before leaving office, largely to make still more energy, mineral and other resources off limits to exploration and development. He too did so without prior consultation with Utah’s governor, congressional delegation or residents. Offshore marine national monuments now total 760 million acres – 7-1/2 times the size of California!

Monument designation means exploration, drilling, mining, timber harvesting, motorized vehicles, and even grazing and gathering firewood are prohibited. People’s property rights, lives, livelihoods, living standards and life savings are grievously affected. The entire tax, job and revenue base of communities, counties and states is impacted. Thousands of acres of state “school sections” – which states are granted at the time of statehood to finance schools – are made off limits, with no compensation. 

That’s real thievery. At the very least, this demands careful consultation with the people who live there, and negotiations with their representatives to ensure that all these interests are considered and addressed. Stroke-of-the-pen monument decrees callously circumvented all these constitutional, legal and ethical safeguards. They ensured that valuable property was taken without due process or just compensation.

Taken together, the original Grand Staircase and Bears Ears Monuments were far larger than the combined acreage of Utah’s Bryce and Zion National Parks. They are in addition to Utah’s three other national parks, six other national monuments, four national recreation and conservation areas, hundreds of miles of national trails, 31 national wilderness areas, and millions of acres in other restrictive land use categories – in a state where the federal government still owns 61% of all the land.

Compare that to states east of the Mississippi, where federal agencies own, manage or control just 0.3% of Connecticut and Iowa, and 0.6% of New York, for example. People and officials in these states have no inkling of what it is like to live in Western states where 30% to 80% of all lands are federally owned. 

Even more important, the remaining Utah monument areas are still huge. From Bears Ears, the new Shash Jáa monument is 130,000 acres (three times the size of Washington, DC) and Indian Creek is 72,000 acres (almost twice DC). From Grand Staircase Escalante, the new Grand Staircase is 210,000 acres (one-third of Rhode Island); Kaiparowits is 551,000 acres (81% of RI); and Escalante Canyons is 243,000 acres (36% of RI). To suggest that these monuments are now too small to safeguard their unique habitats, scenic areas, fossil sites, antiquities and Pueblo ruins is simply absurd – and disingenuous.

Imagine the Fish & Wildlife Service or other federal agency “protecting” one-half of Rhode Island or Delaware as a monument or endangered species habitat, to safeguard a Native American village site, small meteorite crater, scenic river valley, or rare fish, frog or bird habitat – on the bogus ground that making a smaller area off limits to human activity would leave it open to depredation.

That’s what Utah was dealing with – along with claims that a single mine, oil well, road, ranch, town or other sign of humanity’s presence … in areas the size of Rhode Island, Delaware or even Connecticut … would forever destroy the “wilderness character” of the entire area. This is what drives environmentalist activism and decades of pre-Trump federal land management policy. It’s deplorable and intolerable.

In reality, all areas removed from highly restrictive “national monument” status remain under the management and protection of multiple federal agencies and regulations. They are not being “stolen,” given to Utah or private interests, opened to rapacious looting and development, or left defenseless.

In stark contrast to the way Presidents Clinton and Obama designated the two original monuments, these decisions to reduce their size were made only after numerous extensive meetings and consultations, over a six-month period, with local residents and leaders, tribal and inter-tribal members and delegates, local, county and congressional representatives, environmental groups and many other parties.

If any of these or other people and organizations want official wilderness or park status for any of these areas that have been returned to traditional “multiple use” management and protection – they can and should utilize the legislative processes required by the Constitution, Wilderness Act and other laws. Any other approach would be improper, unconstitutional, illegal, unethical and dismissive of local interests.

On a related front, federal arrogance and heavy-handedness took the Obama era war on coal to the Navajo Nation. Citing specious climate change, health and “viewshed” justifications, regulators issued what were effectively execution orders for the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station and its associated coal mine –destroying two pillars of the precarious Navajo economy and living standards. In league with radical greens, they also scuttled plans to build the proposed state-of-the-art Desert Rock coal-fired power plant.

As in the case of huge Utah national monument designations, Navajo families and tribal leaders were deliberately and systematically excluded from the decision-making and property confiscation process.

This is the regulatory culture and mindset that President Trump and Secretary Zinke are trying to change. For doing so, they are meeting fierce resistance and disinformation from Patagonia, North Face and their allies. Shoppers might want to keep this in mind when thinking about what to buy for holiday gifts. ESR

Paul Driessen is senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (www.CFACT.org) and author of books and articles on energy and environmental policy.





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