WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is all about bucking precedent, and he’s doing it again when it comes to public lands.
In a move that could allow him to roll back the protection of lands designated by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Trump signed an executive order Wednesday that reviews enforcement of the law that gives him power to designate lands as national monuments.
The president called it “a massive federal land grab” while signing the order. He said it would end “another egregious abuse of federal power” and “give that power back to the states and to the people where it belongs.”
The order, which Trump signed at the Interior Department, could lead to the reshaping of 24 national monuments, including Canyons of the Ancients National Monument near Cortez.
Also inlcuded are Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Basin and Range National Monument, as well as a host of Pacific Ocean monuments, including the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.
Though Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke cast the move as a way to include local voices in the decision to designate monuments, the review of the Antiquities Act — which was first signed by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 — stands in stark relief to years of bipartisan work at conserving lands.
The move also comes after Western Republican lawmakers, including Utah Sen, Orrin Hatch, complained that Obama overused the law to overprotect land.
Hatch said in response to Trump’s forthcoming order that he is “committed to rolling back the egregious abuse of the Antiquities Act to serve far-left special interests.”
But Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet said Wednesday the order is “an unprecedented attack on existing national monuments protected by the Antiquities Act, a law that has been used by both Republican and Democratic presidents for over a century.”
“The president’s action is an affront to our communities and tribes that have spent years working to protect areas of cultural and historic significance,” Bennet said.
“It is also an infringement on our rural communities, which rely on national monuments and other public lands to support their outdoor recreation economy. We will continue to defend these designations in Colorado and the more than 150 additional national monuments around the country.”
At the heart of this proposal is Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.3-million-acre parcel of lands that includes world-class rock climbing, age-old cliff dwellings and land sacred to Pueblo Indians that Obama designated a monument in 2016.
Zinke said Tuesday in a briefing with reporters that he will make a recommendation on the contested parcel of land in 45 days and later provided Trump will a fuller report.
“We feel that the public, the people that monuments affect, should be considered and that is why the president is asking for a review of the monuments designated in the last 20 years,” Zinke said, adding he believes the review is “long overdue.”
But that action has been met with vocal opposition from environmental groups, outdoor outfitters and Native American tribes, who argue federal protection is not only better for the environment, but better for the economy in a rural, economically depressed area of Utah.
“The policy is consistent with President Trump’s promise to give American’s a voice and make sure their voices are heard,” Zinke said, arguing the order “restores the trust between local communities and Washington” and lets rural America know “states will have a voice” in land designation.
Trump’s executive order will not resolve the Bears Ears issue. Instead, it will set up a process to review the designation and make a decision at a later date.
But groups that support keeping Bears Ears in federal control believe the Trump administration’s decision, led by Zinke, is the first step in the process to give the land back to Utah.
Rose Marcario, president and CEO of the outdoor outfitter Patagonia, said the review “is an assault on America’s most treasured lands and oceans.”
“Bears Ears and other national monuments were designated after significant community input because they are a critical part of our national heritage and have exceptional ecological characteristics worth protecting for future generations,” Marcario said.
“It’s extremely disturbing to see the Trump administration apparently laying the groundwork to remove protections on our public lands.”
Zinke said he is prepared for legal challenges from environmental groups but acknowledged it is “untested” whether the president has the power to shrink public lands by using the Antiquities Act.
And there are likely to be legal challenges. Marcario said Patagonia was “preparing to take every step necessary, including possible legal action” in order to protect Bears Ears and other national monuments.