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The Trump Administration’s Attacks on Public Lands and Waters Will Cause Irreparable Harm

This corporate cronyism spells doom for our ecosystem.

Grand Staircase-Escalante, New Mexico. (Photo: Bureau of Land Management)

In December, Trump announced that he would shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah by 85 percent and 46 percent respectively. The announcement came after Trump had ordered Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in April to review 27 national monuments created since 1996 that were 100,000 acres or larger, and Zinke subsequently recommended that these and other monuments be reduced.

Trump’s move represents the largest delisting of protected federal lands in US history, removing 2 million acres from national monument status. It’s a clear break with practice of previous presidents, especially over the past several decades, who have largely expanded or created new monuments that set aside land for protection under authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act. The Act provides for presidents to establish national monuments to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated on land owned or controlled by the Federal Government.”

Trump’s move represents the largest delisting of protected federal lands in US history.

As a result of this decision by the Trump regime, tens of thousands of acres in both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante that contain magnificent Native cultural artifacts, archaeological sites precious to the cultural life of six tribes and rich deposits of dinosaur fossils have been removed from national monument protection. The move by Trump, despite claims from both Trump and Zinke, opens the possibility for fossil fuel and uranium extraction on these lands, and the building of new roads, off-road vehicle use, and expansion of grazing and other practices that threaten real harm to these natural wonders. The decision also completely rejected the public comments of more than 2 million people who overwhelmingly supported maintaining the monuments as they were. Zinke arrogantly rejected these expressed viewpoints, saying, “I don’t bow to public pressure,” while simultaneously justifying the review and ultimately the decision to shrink the monuments, claiming the original proclamations to establish them had been “made without public consultation.”

In his final report to Trump, Zinke also recommended slicing the size of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument on the border of Oregon and California, as well as the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada. Cascade-Siskiyou was established in 2000 and expanded in 2017 by Obama. In supporting a call for its expansion in 2015, ecologists and biologists who had studied the region described it as an “ecological wonder” that is “home to a spectacular variety of rare and beautiful species of plants and animals, whose survival in this region depends upon its continued ecological integrity” Scientists specifically cited the need to preserve the biodiversity in the face of increased threat from climate change.

Zinke also pushed for changing the management rules for six other national monuments, including three marine monuments that would remove protected status and very likely open them to exploitation by commercial fisheries at a critical time of decline of ocean life.

Five different lawsuits have been filed against Trump, et al over slashing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. One of the lawsuits to defend Bears Ears was filed by the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Zuni Tribe, all of whom have a deep connection to the land and history in the region. Shaun Chapoose of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee said in a statement announcing the lawsuit, “The Bears Ears region is a cultural landscape — a place to nurture our families in our traditions. It’s a sad state of affairs when the president of this great nation shows manifest disregard for our history and culture as a people, but we are prepared to fight for our rights and to protect Bears Ears.” Earthjustice has filed lawsuits on behalf of eight environmental, wildlife and public lands protection groups to protect Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Even the outdoor clothing company Patagonia has joined lawsuits.

Normal management of public lands [is] heavily skewed toward extractive industries and many other destructive uses.

Randi Spivak is public lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and spoke with Truthout about Trump’s decision, as well as the larger environmental stakes of the battle over public lands. CBD is one of the groups actively leading a movement to protect public lands, and a complainant in the lawsuits.

Curtis Johnson: Trump and Zinke have claimed the gutting of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments was done to allow local people to control their own land and to redress years of “overreach” by federal bureaucracy. They’ve claimed that the archaeological and artistic treasures of Bears Ears and fossils in Grand Staircase-Escalante would still be protected because the lands won’t be literally handed over to the states or private interests. How do you see that and how would you respond to that line of argument?

Randi Spivak: Let’s be clear: these are [the US’s] public lands; they belong to everyone from the citizens of Utah, to New Jersey to North Carolina. This has nothing to do with state’s rights. These lands have always been federal public lands. Read the law Congress enacted making Utah a state and Utah’s own Constitution — or that of any Western state. Each includes language forever disclaiming any interests in federal lands within state boundaries.

As far as claims that the lands are still protected, slashing protections from 2 million acres of land leaves a lot unprotected. In Bears Ears, 56,000 archaeological sites will no longer have protection. And the same goes for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Each monument proclamation was carefully mapped and vetted, so cutting any amount — whether it’s an archaeological treasure or Native American sacred site — will now be at risk by stripping those protections.

So, following up on that, Zinke has said all these areas will still be federal lands, and so there are still laws against taking out Native art and so forth. Can you tell us a little about if these things are protected as national monuments versus just federal lands?

While these lands will still be publicly owned, the current laws don’t provide the kinds of protections that come with national monument status. Normal management of public lands [is] heavily skewed toward extractive industries and many other destructive uses. About 90 percent of Bureau of Land Management lands are open to oil and gas drilling; over 90 percent of all public lands are open to livestock grazing. And on most public lands, you can drive off-road vehicles.

Proclaiming a national monument usually means that the area is no longer open to new drilling, fracking and mining. We know that oil and gas companies have expressed interest in portions of Bears Ears that the president has stripped of protections, and that a uranium company, Energy Fuels Resources, urged the Trump administration to reduce Bears Ears and hired a team of lobbyists to press their interest.

Another aspect of the kinds of protections that national monuments provide for archeological sites, ancestral ruins or sensitive habitat is motorized vehicles that are limited to designated roads. Each monument has a management plan developed with public input that identifies the designated roads. Stripping protections will mean more people driving machines across sensitive streams and washes, through treasured architectural sites and despoiling sacred areas.

It was interesting that in the announcement, Zinke and Trump tried to stay away from talking about extraction but focused on hunting and fishing, which was clear were already allowed in the monuments. You know they kept talking about wanting to make sure hunting and fishing are going to continue to be allowed….

That’s an outright lie. None of the monuments Zinke wants to gut restrict hunting or sport fishing. All of them leave hunting and fishing regulations up to state wildlife agencies. National monuments are open for everyone in the world to explore, and the only way to “lock up” public land is to auction it off for drilling, fracking, mining and logging.

Trump is looking to boost fossil fuel extraction and reward his billionaire industry cronies.

But Zinke’s recommendations to Trump do call for stripping protections for three marine national monuments — Rose Atoll, Pacific Remote Islands and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts. Marine monuments prohibit or phase out commercial fishing to protect a wide range of marine life — including fish, turtles, whales, dolphins and coral reefs — from overfishing [and] harmful practices such as bottom trawling. Studies have shown that protected areas are a boon to the fishing industry because the no-commercial-fishing monument protections enable healthy fish populations to swell and then swim outside of protected areas into commercial zones where they can be fished.

What do you think this monument decision indicates about what Trump and the rest are planning for public lands and waters in general? Zinke has already recommended in addition to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, two other national monuments should be shrunk and rules governing management of six others be changed. How do you see the stakes of this? Where are they going with this whole effort?

Unfortunately, Trump will probably follow Zinke’s recommendations that would shrink the boundaries for two other monuments in Oregon and Nevada, and reduce protections through management changes for national monuments in New Mexico, Maine and for three marine monuments. I think it’s about two things. First Trump continues play to his narrow political base. Bears Ears was all about Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) whispering in Trump’s ear to “do something,” and he did. And it’s the same thing with Greg Walden (R-Oregon) and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Walden wants to reward the logging industry by opening up these lands to heavy logging.

Under the guise of “energy dominance,” Trump is looking to open up our public lands and oceans to the fossil fuel industry to get every drop of oil, gas and coal that they can and remove protective regulations for our air, climate, wildlife, waters and lands that stand in the way. Their road map is clear.

So, these decisions from Trump on the environment are coming in a roll. The same week they made this decision on the monuments, Trump announced he’s opening the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans for drilling. Then this new tax bill is passed, opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. So how does the monument decision connect to the whole picture of what the Trump regime is doing to the environment?

Trump is looking to boost fossil fuel extraction and reward his billionaire industry cronies. The battle over national monuments is no different, but is one of many battles to conserve [the US’s] public lands for this and future generations.

Trump is a climate denier. He’s withdrawing the US from the global climate change accord; overturning the Clean Power Plan’s attempt to make power plants more efficient; expanding offshore drilling into every ocean off [the US’s] coasts, even overturning offshore drilling safety regulations adopted after the Deepwater Horizon disaster; [he] has done away with Obama’s landmark ban on mining federal coal propping up the dying coal industry. The Trump administration even asked the fossil fuel industry what federal regulations they consider to be a burden to them, and increasingly we’ve seen the Trump administration attempt to hide fracking damage on public lands. The Bureau of Land Management, responsible for oil and gas drilling on public lands, is basically sidestepping the law and is increasingly not requiring any analysis or public disclosure of harm from fracking to communities, wildlife, climate, land and water. It’s a de facto reversal of Obama-era reforms, which increased transparency and environmental review before approving lease auctions.

The thing that really hits me, and I haven’t seen it talked about so much, is the impact and the stakes of everything you’re talking about at a time when we’re already in an escalating crisis of climate change and general environmental decline. For instance, a recent study showing global populations of vertebrates on pace to decline by 67 percent from 1970 levels by 2020, and scientific study after study about the melting polar regions and so forth. I want to really convey, what would you say about the stakes? Some environmental groups say, “Well, he’s not going to get away with it,” or for instance, the necessities of the market will argue against developing a lot of these resources because sustainable energy is more profitable and oil prices are low. But I see a great danger, especially given this environmental crisis we’re facing as a whole.

Let me answer in two parts. People are somewhat right in saying a lot will depend, for example, on the price of oil. The recent oil and gas auction on the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska — even though the government auctioned off millions of acres, very little was actually leased because of the vagaries of drilling in those areas and also the price of oil. But if oil prices rise again, there will be more interest from industry. And there’s still an export market for [US] coal, a significant amount [of which] is mined on public lands. In no way does the market completely protect us here, in no way.

If a company buys a lease at auction, and for virtually no money, they can sit on these leases for decades. Technically, it’s 10 years for a federal oil and gas lease, but they can renew them. Companies can speculate and sit on these leases ’til such time that the price may make it profitable. So, it may be that we don’t see wholesale drilling tomorrow in many places, but the danger is still there.

Trump is getting us in such a deep hole on the climate crisis. He’s locking us into a fossil fuel future. And the damage we’ll see to ecosystems, to the oceans, wildlife — it’s scary.

Certain things, like withdrawing the Grand Canyon uranium, that will take a while to do, they have to go through a process in which the public will get to weigh in. Maybe they won’t succeed. They can’t do everything with the snap of a finger. But make no mistake: They’re going to cause some irreparable harm here. Everything Trump and Zinke are doing will harm species, public lands, waters, and exacerbate climate change. They are dragging us into a deep hole, a bad future.

Thanks so much, that’s very helpful and I appreciate your time and your work which is so important.

Thank you. Even though these are dark times for our public lands, oceans, wildlife and our climate, it’s important that we all keep fighting. The Center for Biological Diversity is resisting Trump in every possible way — especially in the courts. So far, the Center has filed 46 lawsuits against Trump. This regime will not last forever. To get involved I would encourage readers to get connected with Ignite Change, a nationwide movement that’s standing up to save life on Earth.

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