Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced Thursday that he will not seek to roll back any of the recently reviewed National Monuments. He has said however that he will press for some boundary changes and left open the possibility of allowing drilling, mining or other industries on at least some of the sites.  Zinke didn’t specify which, but based on an interim report released in June, he may recommend that Bears Ears National Monument in Utah be shrunk in size.

Zinke’s report to the president comes about four months after Trump signed an executive order directing the Interior Department to review all National Monuments created since 1996 (27 of them to be exact), comprising about 553 million acres of land and ocean.  President Trump said the goal of the review was to, “…end an abuse of power that’s resulted in a massive federal land grab.”   Environmental groups and tribal leaders fear that lifting designations would put the historical sites inside those National Monuments at risk and reduce safeguards. It’s unclear whether the areas that could lose National Monument status would suddenly be open to mining, logging, and/or oil and gas development — but that’s what environmental groups are cautious over.

So, what are National Monuments?

The first US National Monument, Devils Tower in Wyoming. ph:

The US’ first National Monument, Devils Tower in Wyoming. Ph:

Well, National Monuments are created from the conversion of some form of federally managed public land to another form of federally managed public land.  But, therein lies the rub… there is a difference from public land type A and public land type B.  National Monuments tend to be converted Bureau of Land Management land (BLM) or Forest Service land (USFS).  BLM and USFS lands are managed in a way that intentionally balances out multiple uses.  Those uses can include grazing cattle, drilling for oil, mining for coal, logging, hiking, boating, biking, camping… and so on.  National Monuments by contrast are managed by the National Park Service and are managed in a way that favors preservation, conservation and recreation.

Secretary Zinek’s National Monument has been beset with controversy since the executive order was issued.  Opposition to the review as been nearly unanimous, with more than 99% of over 1 million comments against modifying any of the existing National Monuments in any way.  Today’s announcement comes off as a bitter-sweet comprimise at best.  While Ryan Zinke was clear that no Monuments will be “de-listed,” a few of them may see their boundaries redrawn in a way to reduce their surface acreage.

While no president has ever rescinded the classification of a National Monument, changing the size of one is not unprecedented.  In fact, boundaries for some Monuments have been trimmed almost 20 times before the current administration’s review. Woodrow Wilson, for instance, carved Mount Olympus National Monument nearly in half, which Theodore Roosevelt had just previously designated. The last president to reduce the size of a monument was John F. Kennedy who, in 1963, revised the boundaries of the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico.

Part of the anxiety around today’s announcement comes from the secrecy surrounding the Secretary’s report – while it has been given to President Trump, it has not yet been made public.  Speculations regarding President Obama’s most recent Monument designation, Bears Ears, is under particular scrutiny in many observational camps.  Conservationists decry any changes to the Monument due to the abundance of human cultural artifacts located in the area and fear the resource development would threaten the integrity of the resources.  Oil, gas and coal developers threw concern when the monument was originally designated – essentially removing potentially mineraly rich areas off the map. Other monuments at risk of redrawn borders would potentially include the Clinton era Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and several others located off the coast of California.

Zinke, however, did not directly answer whether any monuments would be newly opened to energy development, mining or other industries.  The former Montana congressman said clarify to say that public access for uses such as hunting, fishing or grazing would be maintained or restored. He also spoke of protecting tribal interests.  In the announcement, Zinke hoped to ease the concern from conservationists who had warned of impending mass sell-offs of public lands by the Trump administration.

“I’ve heard this narrative that somehow the land is going to be sold or transferred,” he said. “That narrative is patently false and shameful. The land was public before and it will be public after.”

What’s next?

If President Trump does decide to go follow through on Zinke’s recommendations – shrinking the size of a few national monuments, there’s likely going to be litigation.

“This is very likely to become a legal issue,” says Hartinger. “We will almost surely see a flurry of litigation filed from a number of groups.” That include environmental groups like the Wilderness Society, tribal leaders, and state attorney generals, he says. And because there’s no precedent, it’s unclear what will happen.”

Stay tuned…