Press Release

A Look at National Monument Designation Is in Order but Only the Tip of What’s Needed

Apr 24, 2017

WASHINGTON—According to media reports, President Trump soon plans to sign a new executive order mandating that the Department of the Interior (DOI) examine all national monument designations made in the past 21 years to discern whether their size and scope are within the intent of the Antiquities Act. Resources for the Future (RFF) Senior Fellow Margaret Walls today penned a new blog post, outlining why the law has come under fire from some Republican members of Congress. And why DOI’s review, even if well done, may help—yet only scratch the surface of “what really needs attention.”

One of the arguments raised against the act is that the president should not be able to protect lands as monuments without consulting Congress (putting aside the irony that the act was passed because Congress moved too slowly). But more to the point, perhaps, is that President Trump is responding to two monuments created by President Obama in December 2016: Bear’s Ears in southern Utah and Gold Butte in the Mojave Desert in Nevada. Both have become targets for opponents like Utah Congressional Representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz and many others who have labeled the designation a “land grab” and a “midnight monument.”

Whether a sitting president has the authority to rescind a national monument created by his predecessor appears to be an unsettled legal question. Walls, however, is concerned that such “murky legal waters” could lead to lawsuits that tie up the issue in court for years. She notes that, “The prospect of this alternative makes the forthcoming executive order a reasonable one, in my view.”

However, she also notes that in “the bigger picture, the national monuments controversy is just one of many problems facing our nation’s public lands. There are long-simmering disputes over allowable uses of the lands—including conflicts over livestock grazing, oil and gas development, forestry, mining, outdoor recreation, and wilderness designations. And in recent years, several western state legislatures and some members of Congress, including Utah’s Bishop, have proposed a wholesale transfer of federal lands to the states. There are also problems related to funding for public lands. … Underpinning many of these issues is the changing nature of the US economy and the socio-demographics of the western United States. The traditional natural resource production values associated with public lands—mining, agriculture, and forestry—are declining relative to conservation and recreation values.”

Walls concludes, “The United States is unique among developed countries in having public lands available for all Americans to use in a multitude of ways. But without the care and focus these issues deserve, public lands conflicts are not going away any time soon.”

Read the full post: Trump’s Review of National Monument Designation Points to Larger Public Lands Issues.

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Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, DC, that conducts rigorous economic research and analysis to improve environmental and natural resource policy.