What we need besides lawsuits to protect national monuments from Trump

Last December, President Donald Trump removed national monument protections from more than 2 million acres of public lands — the largest rollback of protected public lands in American history. In 2018, it is widely expected that he and his appointees will continue this unprecedented attack.

Through two presidential proclamations late last year, Trump exposed more than 80 percent of Bears Ears National Monument and 45 percent of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, both in Utah, to environmentally devastating mining and drilling practices. (Ironically, scientists have just announced the discovery of one of the world’s richest troves of Triassic-period fossils in a portion of Bears Ears that lost its protected status due to Trump’s action last December.)

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Subsequently, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued a report calling for potential management and boundary changes to eight other national monuments, including Cascade-Siskiyou in Northern California. Trump’s actions were not only an assault on the environment, history, and natural beauty of Utah, but on protected lands across the nation. California’s national monuments could very well be next on the chopping block.

The removal of these protections came in the months after the president directed Zinke, through an executive order, to conduct a review of all national monuments designated since 1996.

Trump’s actions were quite literally without precedent in the history of our nation. National monuments can either be established by Congress through legislation or by the president as authorized by Congress, under a 1906 law known as the Antiquities Act. Once established, only Congress has the authority to abolish or modify national monuments.

By contrast, Trump did not and does not have the legal authority to eliminate or alter national monuments. His illegal slashing of the Utah monuments is already being challenged in court through five lawsuits.

But the fight will not be limited to the courts alone.

Last month, 18 senators, led by New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, introduced legislation to enhance protections for national monuments in the face of Trump’s attacks. The measure, co-sponsored by California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, reinforces the original intent of the Antiquities Act of 1906: Only Congress has the authority to modify a national monument designation.

The proposal – officially known as America’s Natural Treasures of Immeasurable Quality Unite, Inspire, and Together Improve the Economies of States (ANTIQUITIES) Act of 2018 (S. 2354) – protects and enhances national monuments in three ways:

It officially declares Congress’ support for the 51 national monuments established by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama between January 1996 and April 2017.

It reinforces existing federal law that presidential proclamations designating national monuments are valid and cannot be reduced or diminished, except by an act of Congress.

And it codifies the boundaries of the 51 aforementioned monuments, requires that management plans for those monuments currently without them be completed in two years, and authorizes federal funding to ensure they meet their full economic, recreational, and cultural potential.

The Act will ensure continued access for hunting, tourism, scientific research, conservation, and cultural uses. And it further underscores Congress’ intent in the century-old Antiquities Act – and, subsequently, through the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act – that only Congress has the authority to diminish existing national monuments.

On behalf of the millions of Americans who spoke out against Trump’s unprecedented attack on national monuments, this bill ensures that existing national monuments – including treasured places in California such as Giant Sequoias, Mojave Trails, and Berryessa Snow Mountain – will continue to be protected for future generations.

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The future of national monuments should not be perpetually cast under a dark cloud of uncertainty, subject to the political whims of an administration intent on selling public lands to special interests for economic exploitation. Sens. Feinstein, Harris and their colleagues deserve thanks for their efforts to protect our cherished public lands. All Californians should support those efforts.

Rick Frank is director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center and professor of environmental practice at UC Davis School of Law. Email him at rmfrank@ucdavis.edu.