On Wednesday, President Trump signed yet another executive order, and like most of them it was based on the concept of reining in government overreach — and as usual, his critics were howling mad.
The “Presidential Executive Order on the Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act” ordered Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to “conduct a review of all Presidential designations or expansions of designations under the Antiquities Act 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 the designation or expansion was made without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders.”
The order basically puts about two dozen so-called “national monuments” up for review, including Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, which consists of 377,000 acres and was designated by President Bill Clinton in the final days of his second term in 2001.
Zinke has 120 days to complete the review and report back to the president on whether the monuments meet the test of the original Antiquities Act of 1906 as well as a series of criteria to gauge the appropriateness of the designations.
The reaction from the left, predictably, was loud, swift and hysterical.
The Western Values Project called the order a “public lands attack [that] silences rural America.” In fact, it is an effort to let rural America talk back to the federal government and insist on being heard. The question is really whether it is appropriate to remove massive swaths of public land from public use under the powers of the 1906 legislation.
An email from a group of four national fishing and hunting groups including the National Wildlife Federation worried that the order “could threaten sportsmen’s access and fish and wildlife habitat.” That actually demonstrates just why the executive order was needed — because the law signed by Teddy Roosevelt had no authority to create “hunting and angling opportunities.” To use it for that purpose would be an abuse of the law.
Instead the Antiquities Act was meant to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated on lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States.”
There is certainly no indication that President Trump or Secretary Zinke will endanger any landmarks, structures or objects of historic interest, but that did not stop the environmental left from sounding the alarm.
Skye Borden of Environment Montana sent out an email claiming that 54 national monuments were “at risk.” Whether they are at risk or not remains to be seen. Most probably aren’t, but since there have only been 129 national monuments created since the law was first signed by Teddy Roosevelt, the fact that 54 have been created since 1996 shows just how much the power has been exaggerated by the three presidents prior to Trump. Remember, a national monument is not the same as a national park, and if presidents are using the Antiquities Act to create parks and wilderness preserves for political purposes, that is an abuse of the law.
Most importantly, as Secretary Zinke pointed out at the signing ceremony, there is reason to question whether the law has been followed at all in recent designations of national monuments. That’s because the 1906 act restricted the president’s power to designate a monument by noting that reservations of land were not to exceed “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” Instead, many of the national monuments designated in the past 30 years have been massive, and there is no conceivable way to even find a specific “object” to be protected. What “object,” “structure” or “landmark” is being protected in the Missouri Breaks? Yes, the area may well be worthy of protection, but that does not mean it is a national monument.
Most of the monuments declared seem to actually protect “land,” not “landmarks.” A landmark is by definition an object or feature of the landscape that can be seen from a distance and helps you to establish your location.
Such a definition clearly applies to Pompeys Pillar in Montana, a rock formation that was a landmark both to native tribes and to white settlers and explorers such as Lewis and Clark. It is worthy of preservation, and President Clinton, faithful to the intent of the Antiquities Act, set aside only 51 acres of land to preserve the landmark in the Pompeys Pillar National Monument.
Compare that to the Bear Ears National Monument in Utah, which set aside 1.35 million acres of land surrounding the Bear Ears, a pair of mesas considered sacred by Native American tribes. Does that really fit in with the act’s requirement that the monument’s acreage should consist of ”the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected”? Or is this more accurately described as an old-fashioned land grab?
That, in fact, is what Secretary Zinke will have to determine. If the national monuments set aside in recent years have not been created in accordance with the law, then it is right and proper that they should be revisited. We are a nation of laws, not a nation of politically convenient policies.
Frank Miele is managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana.