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Rutgers professor weighs In on cuts of natural monuments, role of government

In a statement released on Monday, Dec. 4, President Donald J. Trump said that the size of two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante, will be reduced by nearly 2 million acres.

According to NPR, Bears Ears — established by former President Barack Obama and originally over 1.3 million acres — will be decreased by 85 percent to approximately 228,000 acres, under Trump’s new mandate. The Grand Staircase-Escalante, established by former President Bill Clinton, will also be reduced, going from nearly 1.9 million acres to 800,000 acres. 

These two national monuments are protected under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which was passed in efforts to protect natural and archaeological sites from “haphazard digging” and “purposeful, commercial artifact looting,” according to The National Park Service website.

The act also grants the president authority to designate areas of interest as national monuments to protect and conserve land and related objects. Since the enactment of the Antiquities Act, more than 150 national monuments have been created.

Contrary to the intent of the act, Trump has proposed to reduce the size of national monument lands by recommendation of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, according to CNN. 

“The only question arises, given what the president has done, is does the law allow a subsequent president to alter in any way, the boundaries of a national monument that was created by a previous president. That I suspect, is the basis on which lawsuits are currently being filed,” said Ross Baker, a distinguished professor in the Department of Political Science.

Within the last week, a coalition of five Native American tribes and 10 conservation groups have sued the president and his administration, disputing the president’s ability to amend national monuments in light of the Antiquities Act’s objective of establishing protected land.

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, these tribes utilize the wildlife and water in the region for “cultural and medicinal ceremonies,” and modifying this land would be a “tremendous affront to tribal sovereignty.”

Large companies such as Patagonia and REI are in agreement with the tribes, according to the Times.

Both companies, focused on outdoor recreation and equipment, commented on the critical roles of national monuments in providing beauty and history for Americans to treasure. Such public lands also sustain the multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation economy, which employs over 7.6 million workers.

“These abuses of the Antiquities Act give enormous power to faraway bureaucrats at the expense of the people who actually live here, work here and make this place their home,” Trump said while speaking to an audience in Salt Lake City, according to a White House press release.

Trump discussed giving the land back to those it belongs to, but did not explicitly state his intentions for the use of the land.

Baker said that the establishment of the national monuments in Utah accounted for and allowed activities such as four-wheeling, fishing and grazing. Mining and drilling is illegal under current legislation. 

“Clearly, there would be revenues to the government’s benefit,” Baker said. “In order to buy licenses to drill or mine in the area, the government would have to issue them. They would come at a cost to the energy companies interested. There would be some revenue generated (from these licenses), but I don’t think it would be enough to equal the amount of indebtedness created by the recent tax reform.” 

Zinke's position places him in charge for managing all federal land and natural resources, which makes him one of Trump’s main advisers in this decision. As the secretary of the interior since March 2017, he has surveyed 27 monuments to determine which to decrease in size. He voted against narrowing the boundaries of private land owned by the founding family of Burt’s Bees, instead suggesting the two Utah national monuments to the president.

People have taken to social media, using the hashtag #MonumentalMistakes, to express their criticisms of the recent decision — many reinforcing that the land belongs to the people, not corporations. 

“If you want to visit these national monuments, if they’re reduced in size, there will presumably be less area that will protected from these various extracted industries, but right now, it’s in the courts,” Baker said.

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