With Litigation Guaranteed, the fate of national monuments will be uncertain for some time

Posted on September 1, 2017 by Brenda Mallory

At the end of August as the last days of summer pass, the Conservation community waits with bated-breath to learn what the Trump Administration will do to twenty-one significant national monuments and the century-old tradition they reflect. The consensus—among those who have dedicated their lives to protecting special places, the local communities whose economies have been bolstered by their presence, and a broad swath of Americans who simply enjoy having extraordinary places to visit—is that it won’t be good. The further consensus is that what the Administration is considering likely exceeds the President’s legal authority under the Antiquities Act. Both progressive and conservative voices have recently argued that the president lacks the authority to diminish or revoke National Monuments. While the motivations for making this argument may be different, the basic statutory and constitutional arguments are the same, and the significance of the president taking this uncharted path to diminishing national monument protections is recognized (in either a positive or negative light) even by the few who argue he does have the authority to do so.

The legal question begins where many of our most controversial issues today start –the scope of a law. Yet, at its foundation, a history of simmering tensions over the extent of Federal lands in the west and the Federal government’s control over those lands has fueled passions around this issue. For over 110 years, the Antiquities Act has stood as one of the most powerful tools for the protection of cultural, historic, and scientific resources. Some have described it as the first statute with an exclusively protective purpose.  The statute gives a President the discretion to “declare by public proclamation 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 to be national monuments.” A key question is what does “other objects of historic or scientific interest” mean? This Administration appears poised to take on the longstanding, judicially endorsed conclusion that this phrase includes large landscapes like the Grand Canyon, and to bring to the fore the threshold question of whether a subsequent President can change the monument designation of a predecessor.

In April, President Trump signed an Executive Order instructing Interior Secretary Zinke to undertake a review of Antiquities Act monument designations since 1996. Secretary Zinke then launched the review process identifying 27 monuments that fit the EO criteria: 26 because they were over 100,000 acres and one for the purpose of determining whether stakeholder engagement had been adequate. Recommendations were submitted to the President on August 24, 2017, but have not been made public. The Commerce Secretary received a similar presidential directive and is undertaking a separate process for marine monuments and national marine sanctuaries.

Over its history, monument designations under the Antiquities Act have been challenged as inconsistent with the statute and have always been upheld. See, e.g., Cameron v. United States, 252 U.S. 450 (1920), Cappaert v. United States, 426 U.S. 128 (1976). However, no President has attempted to revoke a prior designation and there has been no judicial challenge in the previous circumstances where a President has modified the boundaries of a designation. All signs are suggesting that we are about to see both for the first time: the President is expected to revoke or substantially reduce one or more monuments and, if he does, a challenge is inevitable. While this will be a case of first impression, the overwhelming view of scholars, which I share, is that the President does not have the authority to take these actions because Congress has not delegated him the authority to undo a designation. See, e.g., a collection of articles submitted to the Department of Interior by 121 scholars and similar analysis for marine monuments. Of course, there is an alternate view.

Putting the law aside, the atmospherics associated with this early battle by the Administration are noteworthy. First, like many of its other actions, the unprecedented nature and scope of the attack is striking. While it was immediately obvious after the election that there would be some effort to challenge then-President Obama’s most controversial monument designations, with Bears Ears National Monument in Utah at the top of the list, few expected that designations completed decades ago, by three different Presidents would be under threat. Businesses and communities have grown and developed because of and in reliance on these monuments, inseparable from the benefits they bring to their local areas. Upending years of investment and expectation is stunning. Nor was it expected that the attack would include so many monuments, land and sea, or that Marine Sanctuaries, which are completed over many years and with considerable process, would be thrown brazenly into the mix.  

Second, like the Administration’s attack in other areas, the stated narrative driving the challenge to national monuments – alleged abuse of executive power, failure to consult or listen to stakeholders, ignoring elected officials, restoring balance to the use of Federal land – is at odds with the Administration’s own behavior in the process.  As noted in the above-referenced articles, revoking or substantially reducing the size of a monument is beyond the scope of the President’s authority, a clear abuse of executive power. Even conservative leaning scholars and publications have joined the ranks of those condemning the anticipated executive action as beyond the President’s authority. Moreover, Secretary Zinke has unapologetically spent his “review process” meeting primarily with opponents of the monuments and the summary of his report released last week dismisses as part of a “well-orchestrated national campaign” the 2.7 million comments generated during the review process that overwhelmingly support retention or expansion of national monuments. Next, while the Republican elected officials are getting Zinke’s attention, it is not clear that the views of their Democratic colleagues are being given the same weight. Finally, talk of balance in federal land use is in direct conflict with the newly ascribed goals of “energy dominance” and the expedited efforts to open unspoiled areas to oil and gas drilling, and other extractive activities. Taken together, it is clear that this battle is less about correcting “unlawful” designations by previous Presidents and more about aggressively shifting the policy focus on Federal lands to exploiting the natural resources. For monuments designated under the Antiquities Act, only Congress has the authority to change the designation; and Congress is the appropriate body to consider whether policy shifts warrant such changes.

Finally, the attack on national monuments is not occurring in isolation. Many other efforts to eliminate or impair environmental and conservation protections on Public lands are underway.  They encompass repealing protective measures such as the stream protection rule, withdrawing the rule regulating hydraulic fracturing; repealing the Clean Water Act Rule; eliminating the ban on drilling in the Arctic; and rescinding the Executive Order directing federal agencies to consider rising sea levels when building public infrastructure in flood prone areas. They also include process initiatives that appear designed to undermine the fact based decision-making necessary to ensure the protection of environmental and conservation measures. These initiatives include Zinke’s Order to streamline onshore oil and gas permits, his regulatory reform initiative to eliminate “unnecessary regulatory burdens,” and his Order jumpstarting Alaska Energy focused on opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve Area to oil and gas drilling.

With this backdrop, there is a sense of foreboding as the Administration’s monuments review process comes to an end. One thing is clear, whatever is in the upcoming announcement by the Administration, it will likely take years of litigation before these issues are resolved and this century-old law will be put to the test.