(CN) – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Thursday he will not recommend eliminating any of the 27 monuments he’s reviewed, adding that a “handful” of monuments may be subject to alterations.
Zinke said changes to the boundaries of a few national monuments, including some recently set aside by President Barack Obama, will be part of the recommendations he submits to President Donald Trump.
“The recommendations I sent to the president on national monuments will maintain federal ownership of all federal land and protect the land under federal environmental regulations, and also provide a much-needed change for the local communities who border and rely on these lands for hunting and fishing, economic development, traditional uses, and recreation,” Zinke said in a statement.
The announcement may quell fears among environmental and conservation groups that the Trump administration wants to rescind several national monument designations, most notably Bears Ears National Monument in Utah – a 1.9 million-acre national monument designated under the Antiquities Act by Obama in the waning days of his administration.
Nevertheless, several conservation groups released statements critical of Zinke’s report and the entire review process.
“Any actions that would dismantle these natural wonders would violate Americans’ deep and abiding love for parks and public lands and fly in the face of 2.8 million Americans who expressed opposition to these changes,” said Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society. “We and millions of other Americans stand by the belief that those lands should be preserved and handed down to future generations.”
Obama’s designation of Bears Ears stoked the wrath of many Utah’s congressional delegates including Rep. Rob Bishop, one of the foremost Republicans arguing that the vast stretches of land in the American West under federal ownership and management should be transferred to state management.
Critics of Bishop and his ideas say such a transfer would likely amount to a huge land giveaway to mining and oil and gas conglomerates.
“This bogus review was all along a front for a much more ominous and well-orchestrated agenda to dismantle America’s natural treasures for the benefit of private profiteers,” Williams said. “Sacred places like Bears Ears and other public lands are not commodities to be given away in sweetheart business deals for the fossil fuel and logging industries.”
Zinke pushed back against this characterization in an interview with the AP on Thursday morning.
“I’ve heard this narrative that somehow the land is going to be sold or transferred,” Zinke said. “That narrative is patently false and shameful. The land was public before and it will be public after.”
In the summary of his report, released on Thursday, Zinke said the opponents of national monuments were often local residents concerned the designation would reduce access for activities like fishing and hunting and motorized vehicle recreation. But he also acknowledged many of the opponents were those connected to industries like timber production, grazing and mining.
Zinke notably did not mention the fossil fuel industry in his summary.
A recent review of the Bureau of Land Management documents shows energy companies have applied for permits to perform exploratory drilling for hydrocarbon deposits located directly under some of the land recently designated as part of the Bears Ears National Monument.
Zinke conceded that most of the feedback his department received during the public comment period advocated for keeping monument boundaries intact.
“Comments received were overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments and demonstrated a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations,” he wrote, adding that many comments were based on erroneous assumptions the land would be transferred and sold.
“This narrative is false and has no basis in fact,” he wrote.
He also punched holes in the argument that national monuments are an economic boon due to increased tourism, saying tourists place an additional burden on federal land management agencies.
In both his summary and public comments, Zinke declined to specify which monuments will be subject to changes or the nature of those changes.
The interior secretary has already recommended that Bears Ears boundaries be altered so the monument is reduced by several thousand acres. As a compromise, Zinke advocated for tribal co-management of certain parts of the monument.
The Washington Post, citing “multiple individuals briefed on the decision,” reported late Thursday that Zinke also recommended reducing the sizes of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Both were designated by President Bill Clinton, and Obama expanded the latter prior to leaving office.
National monuments do not have the same stringent land-use restrictions as national parks or national wilderness areas. But many national parks started out as national monuments, including Grand Canyon National Park and Zion National Park.
Zinke has also slowly taken some monuments off the so-called chopping block, saying Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho and Hanford Reach National Monument in Washington state would remain intact.
Upper Missouri River Breaks in Montana, Grand Canyon-Parashant in Arizona, Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado and the Sand to Snow National Monument in California have also been set aside from the review.
Many conservationists have vowed a legal fight to stop any downsizing of monuments, saying the Antiquities Act gives the president wide discretion to set aside lands, but requires an act of Congress to alter those designations.
Proponents of Trump’s effort to revisit the designations point out that presidents have used the power of the executive branch to reduce national monuments 18 separate times since the Antiquities Act was first passed in 1906.
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson reduced the Olympus National Monument, which eventually became Olympic National Park in Washington state, by about 300,000 acres. However, it has been more than 50 years since a president has reduced a national monument – when John F. Kennedy reduced Utah’s National Bridges National Monument by 320 acres.
Most reductions made by presidents in the past have been under 1,000 acres.