- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2017

With a single punch Monday, President Trump will deliver a blow to the legacies of two Democratic predecessors as he chops up controversial national monuments created by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

Mr. Trump will travel Monday to Salt Lake City, where he is expected to announce his long-awaited moves to reduce the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Bears Ears National Monument, two sprawling tracts in Utah that critics long have cited as the most glaring examples of presidents abusing their power under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

The president’s supporters say his action this week — the final result of a review process started by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last spring — will begin to return power to local stakeholders and is a key first step in reversing a trend that saw administrations of both parties grab huge swaths of land and designate them as monuments, regardless of whether local populations agreed with the decision.

“Utah has become ground zero for politically motivated national monument designations that are excessive in size and contemptuous of peoples’ livelihoods,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. “The president has stood against prior abuses of executive power, and his administration has demonstrated a commitment to work in concert with local communities to protect unique public antiquities and objects the right way.”

The century-old Antiquities Act gives presidents the authority to create monuments, but it specifically states that they should be limited to the smallest area possible and to protecting specific artifacts or other items of cultural and historical significance.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Clinton, however, stretched the bounds of that law to its breaking point. Grand Staircase is comprised of 1.8 million acres, and it’s widely believed Mr. Clinton created the site mainly to stop potential mining in the area. Monument designations effectively shut off land to energy exploration.

Similarly, Mr. Obama created the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears and shut down potential coal development in the area. He did so over the objections of some local officials and many Utah lawmakers, though environmentalists and many Native American leaders backed the decision.

In reversing those actions, Mr. Trump’s cuts could represent the largest reductions of any national monument in history. He reportedly will chop Grand Staircase by as much as 85 percent and Bears Ears by about 50 percent, and possibly will turn each existing monument into two separate sites rather than the single massive tracts they are now.

Past presidents have shrunk monuments at least 18 different occasions, though none of those reductions were close to the scale the Trump administration is considering.

The president’s opponents have vowed to fight the move. Thousands reportedly rallied in Utah over the weekend in opposition to the cuts. Other demonstrations are expected Monday when the president arrives in Salt Lake City.

Environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers have said they’ll use lawsuits, public protests and other methods to try to stand in the way.

“It is the largest attack on public lands, waters and outdoor heritage we’ve ever seen,” Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, told reporters late last week. “His decision will lift protections for tens of thousands of sacred sites, putting them at risk for looting and theft. … It is deeply hurtful and insulting to the Native American tribes who worked over many years for the Bears Ears National Monument.”

Mr. Udall also blasted Mr. Trump’s “ignorance” of the law, saying he simply doesn’t have legal authority to shrink monuments. Critics consistently have used that argument, though they typically ignore the fact that other presidents have reduced them with little or no outcry.

In these cases, though, the fight over monuments has become in some ways a proxy war over energy development. Environmentalists believe the Trump administration wants to open up land currently in the Bears Ears monument for uranium mining and areas in Grand Staircase to coal mining.

“This is not about state sovereignty. … This is entirely about access to fossil fuels and to uranium,” said Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation.

Others say the administration doesn’t particularly care about rolling back executive power and instead wants to give a gift to energy companies.

“Despite millions of Americans demanding permanent protection for all of our national monuments, our president and Secretary Zinke have now turned their backs and instead are aligning themselves with those who want to exploit our shared lands for personal profit,” said Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society.

While it’s true that eliminating monument designations would free up land for energy development, the Antiquities Act was never intended to be a mechanism for presidents to cordon off huge areas of federal land. Furthermore, Mr. Trump’s backers say the land in Utah will still be protected, and that the expected changes will by no means result in the destruction of land or artifacts.

“I believe [Mr. Trump‘s] proclamation, following Secretary Zinke’s fair, thorough, and inclusive review, will represent a balanced solution and a win for everyone on all sides of this issue,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican and a longtime critic of both monuments in his state.

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