The Art of the Steal

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Credit: Bob Wick/BLM

It was clearly a sham when President Trump issued an executive order in April requiring Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to “review” every large national monument designated over the last 20 years – 27 in all. Now, with looming executive actions to gut protections for several of these most treasured wild lands and seascapes, we must reject the blatantly false narrative that President Trump is choosing a measured path forward.

There was little hope that the national monuments review would take facts, science, or the voices of the American people into account, including more than 2.7 million individuals who weighed in directly with the administration in support of maintaining protections for national monuments. In signing the order, Trump openly stated his desire to open protected areas to “tremendously positive things.” Just a few weeks later, Zinke said the Antiquities Act has “become a tool of political advocacy rather than public interest.”

This was never a fact-finding mission: the review was simply an excuse to strip protections from some of our most special wild places so that the oil and gas companies and other extractive industries could profit.

The Trump administration is selling this farce to the public using a classic negotiating tactic: threaten the worst and spin the ultimate outcome, however outrageous, as a reasonable result.

At the close of the review, Secretary Zinke announced that he would not recommend the complete revocation of any national monument– one of the worst case scenarios. But published reports indicated that the Secretary recommended substantial reductions in three national monuments: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah, and Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon. With rescission off the table, many press reports bought the administration’s narrative that it was being measured—even magnanimous—in its treatment of our public lands.  

Don’t believe the hype.

Any attempt to strip national monuments of protections or change their boundaries or uses by the president is a radical action that has no support in law and runs counter to the story of American conservation. Never in our history has a President attempted at this scale the widespread, systematic reduction of protections for our public lands and waters.

Moreover, it’s important to remember that the phony review was intended to undermine one of our most important and popular conservation tools – the Antiquities Act – as part of a long, but ultimately fruitless attempt to hand over our public lands and waters to private industry. Shifting boundaries and allowing mining or drilling in previously protected areas would fundamentally undo the essential function of a national monument. None of these iconic landscapes and cultural sites would be safe from future Presidents bent on taking a step backwards in history.

Finally, any attempt by the President to fundamentally diminish the character of a monument is illegal. Only Congress has the authority to make the kind of changes Zinke has recommended. Millions of Americans have weighed in opposing such changes. And more continue to do so.

President Trump and Secretary Zinke are attempting one of the largest thefts of public lands in American history, while selling the American people a false narrative that they’re acting reasonably. If the Trump administration had any other plan for our public lands and waters, other than handing them over to extractive industries for profits, it would have listened to the millions of Americans who urged them to leave our parks alone. But Trump and Zinke’s thinly veiled “Art of the Steal” ignores those voices and the law.

We know the deal, and we’re not buying it.