Conservationists Demand Memos Behind Monuments Review

WASHINGTON (CN) – An environmental nonprofit claims in a federal lawsuit that the Interior Department has delayed disclosing information that would illuminate whether the agency was influenced by oil and gas executives in its review of two dozen national monuments.

The Bears Ears National Monument was one of five sites designated by President Barack Obama under the federal Antiquities Act. (Photo by U.S. Bureau of Land Management via Courthouse News)

Despite granting expediting processing to Friends of the Earth, the group says in a complaint filed Monday in Washington, D.C., federal court that the Department of Interior has so far failed to disclose any records in response to 11 Freedom of Information Act requests filed between July and September about Secretary Ryan Zinke’s review of national monuments.

Zinke conducted the review after President Donald Trump signed an executive order requiring him to evaluate and make recommendations concerning national monuments designated under the Antiquities Act by former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

While Zinke’s reports and recommendations have not been officially made public, on Sept. 24 the agency announced it had sent a report with recommendations to the White House.

A week prior to that, the Washington Post published a memo reportedly penned by Zinke that recommends shrinking four monuments and opening up six others for previously restricted commercial activities.

Worried about undue influence by oil and gas executives who want the monuments opened up for resource extraction, Marcie Keever – the senior legal director for Friends of the Earth – said the group filed the 11 FOIA requests to better understand what took place behind the scenes during the review.

“This information is incredibly important, especially with all the rumors and statements coming out about the monument designations and the shrinking of various monuments,” she said in a phone interview.

The Department of the Interior declined to comment and referred Courthouse News to the Justice Department, which likewise declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Friends of the Earth asked the Department of the Interior for records of communications and meetings Zinke and Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason had in relation to five national monuments: Bears Ears in Utah, Golden Butte in Nevada, Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine, Mojave Trails in California, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, a marine monument off the northeast coast.

Friends of the Earth says it is particularly concerned by Cason’s participation in the review. According to Monday’s lawsuit, Carson has “a long history of lobbying for and working on behalf of the oil, gas, coal and mining corporations that want to extract natural resources from the public lands included in the national monuments.”

Keever said she thinks the agency might have favored input from oil and gas executives and largely ignored the roughly 2.4 million public comments it received, which the agency acknowledged in a summary of its report largely favored preserving the monuments.

“Comments received were overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments and demonstrated a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations,” the report summary states.

According to Keever, Friends of the Earth is “extremely concerned” that opening national monuments to gas and mining extraction could exacerbate climate change.

Advocating for a halt of fossil fuel extraction in the U.S. to prevent climate chaos, Keever said: “We must actually stop extracting fossil fuels from public lands, and frankly everywhere, and move to renewables so we can actually prevent what we’re already seeing happening around the country and around the world when it comes to bigger and scarier storms and all the things we’re seeing with climate change.”

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