It is unsettling that President Trump has called for a review of protected areas established by his predecessors under the Antiquities Act. Set-asides of the last, best places in the United States, both terrestrial and marine environments, has been a legacy for both Republican and Democrat presidents, and the Antiquities Act has been a critical tool in saving these places from a range of threats. There’s no clear legal authority for a rescission of these past actions by our most recent presidents. But surely the review will shed light on the president’s ability to tamper with actions taken under the Antiquities Act, which, as recognized in the Executive Order, was meant to designate areas as “a means of stewarding America’s natural resources, protecting America’s natural beauty, and preserving America’s historic places.”
Specifically, President Trump issued an Executive Order yesterday directing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review national monument designations “made since January 1, 1996, where the designation covers more than 100,000 acres, where the designation after expansion covers more than 100,000 acres, or where the secretary determines that designation or expansion was made without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders…” That review will allow for an examination of more than two dozen national monuments designated by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
Our three most recent presidents have taken some of their most important actions under the Antiquities Act. In designating places for protection, they’ve done more than preserve special lands and waters for animals and for our descendants. As a general principle, they’ve helped deliver robust economic activity related to tourism and stewardship of lands to rural parts of the United States. Just last week, Secretary Zinke issued a report revealing that tourism associated with visiting units of the National Park Service generated $35 billion in economic activity and hundreds of thousands of jobs.
It was, of course, President Theodore Roosevelt, in many ways so ahead of his time, who invoked the Antiquities Act in 1906, using it to protect Devils Tower in Wyoming. In recent years, as the public has come to understand the value of protected areas more keenly than ever, we’ve seen other extraordinary designations by our presidents, protecting our planet and its animals and generating jobs built around tourism and habitat management and care.
In August 2016, for example, President Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument by 442,781 square miles, bringing the total protected area to 582,578 square miles — making it the largest protected marine area on Earth. Papahānaumokuākea is home to more than 7,000 marine species, including sharks, whales, turtles, dolphins, monk seals, seabirds, thousands of fish species, and many other animals found nowhere else in the world. In taking this action, President Obama built on the outstanding work of President George W. Bush, who made the original designation of this marine national monument.
In September 2016, President Obama created the first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean 100 miles southeast of Cape Cod, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. Encompassing two separate areas and totaling 4,913 square miles of the ocean, it is home to many important marine species such as sei, fin, and sperm whales, sea turtles, corals, and many fish species. These unique ecosystems of undersea mountains and canyons, rich with biodiversity, are a safe harbor for these creatures.
On December 28, 2016, President Obama designated two new National Monuments: Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah and the Gold Butte National Monument in southeastern Nevada. The Bears Ears National Monument encompasses 1.35 million acres of land and the Gold Butte National Monument covers 300,000 acres. Both contain land sacred to Native American tribes, cultural sites, and important wildlife habitat. Additionally, President Obama created a Bears Ears Commission comprised of tribal representatives to help provide recommendations for managing the monument.
During his two terms, President Bill Clinton established 19 National Monuments under the Antiquities Act, including the Sonoran Desert National Monument, comprising nearly 500,000 acres of rich desert habitat in the North Maricopa Mountains, South Maricopa Mountains, and the Table Top Wildernesses.
It’s now up to Secretary Zinke to follow the president’s directive and examine the issue. But he’d do best simply to affirm and celebrate the actions of the three prior Presidents and associate himself and President Trump with actions in the national interest. And in doing so, perhaps he can drive a stake in the heart of the archaic and false argument that preservation and protection are at odds with job creation and economic activity. Secretary Zinke’s report on the contribution of national parks and other units of the National Park Service went a long way toward clinching that case last week.