WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday directing his interior secretary to review the designation of tens of millions of acres of land as “national monuments,” an action that could upend protections put in place in Utah and other states as Trump tries to rack up accomplishments in his first 100 days.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizes the president to declare federal lands as monuments and restrict how the lands can be used.
“The executive order will direct me as the secretary to review prior monument designations and to suggest legislative changes or modifications to the monuments,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters at the White House Tuesday evening.
While Zinke acknowledged criticism that the act has been over-used by past presidents, he insisted he’d approach the topic with an open mind.
“I’m not going to predispose what the outcome is going to be,” he said.
Former President Barack Obama infuriated Utah Republicans when he created the Bears Ears National Monument in late December on more than 1 million acres of land that’s sacred to Native Americans and home to tens of thousands of archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings.
Republicans in the state said it was an egregious abuse of executive power and have asked Trump to take the unusual step of reversing the designation, arguing it will stymie growth by closing the area to new commercial and energy development. The Antiquities Act does not give the president explicit power to undo a designation and no president has ever taken such a step.
The order is one of a handful the president is set to sign this week as he tries to rack up accomplishments ahead of his 100th day in office. The president has used executive orders aggressively over the last three months, despite railing against their use by Obama when he was campaigning.
Zinke said the order, which Trump will sign during a visit to his department, will cover several dozen monuments across the country designated since 1996 that total 100,000 acres or more, from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah to the Bears Ears in southeastern Utah.
He’ll provide an interim report in 45 days in which he’ll provide a recommendation on Bears Ears and a final report within 120 days.
Over the last 20 years, Zinke said, tens of millions of acres have been designated as national monuments, limiting their use for farming, timber harvesting, mining and oil and gas exploration, and other commercial uses.
Though “by and large,” Zinke said, he feels the designations have done “a great service to the public,” he said he worries about overuse and overreach.
“I think the concern that I have and the president has is that when you designate a monument, the local community affected should have a voice,” he said.
Some, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have hailed the order as the end of “massive federal land grabs” by presidents dating to Bill Clinton.
But Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said that if Trump truly wants to make America great again, he should use the Antiquities Act to protect and conserve America’s public lands. In New Mexico, Obama’s designation of Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument have preserved important lands while boosting the economy, Heinrich said, a story that has been repeated across the country.
“If this sweeping review is an excuse to cut out the public and scale back protections, I think this president is going to find a very resistant public,'” Heinrich said.
Recent polls have shown strong support for national parks and monuments, said Christy Goldfuss, who directed the White House Council on Environmental Quality under Obama.
Kristina Waggoner, vice president of the Boulder-Escalante Chamber of Commerce in Utah, said business near the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument in southern Utah is booming, driven by sharp increases in tourism since the area was designated in 1996 by President Bill Clinton.
“I’m here today to support the monument and my 3-year-old son,” Waggoner said on a conference call with reporters organized by a pro-Obama group. “Once our land is gone, it’s gone forever.”